Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jawas! Sound then Raise/Raze Your Idols!

h/t - Gert
Under your name
People clean their sins
Covering veil of decadence

Idols without masks
All the time rise and fall

I talked to Nietzsche
One late November night
And he still believes in Superman

Today saint to divinity
Tomorrow ruthlessly defiled
Satan old fashioned idol

I wish to Nietzsche goodbye
Night revolves on fog scratch
Zarathustra will preach tomorrow

Age of idols have died
God is hiding behind the scenes.
- Ilire Zajmi, "Idols"

Life in the Faustian Age

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fresh

The formula of pathetic identification ‘I am …’ (or ‘We are all …’) only functions within certain limits, beyond which it turns into obscenity. We can proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie,’ but things start to crumble with examples like ‘We all live in Sarajevo!’ or ‘We are all in Gaza!’ The brutal fact that we are not all in Sarajevo or Gaza is too strong to be covered up by a pathetic identification. Such identification becomes obscene in the case of Muselmänner, the living dead in Auschwitz. It is not possible to say: ‘We are all Muselmänner!’ In Auschwitz, the dehumanisation of victims went so far that identifying with them in any meaningful sense is impossible. (And, in the opposite direction, it would also be ridiculous to declare solidarity with the victims of 9/11 by claiming ‘We are all New Yorkers!’ Millions would say: ‘Yes, we would love to be New Yorkers, give us a visa!’)

The same goes for the killings last month: it was relatively easy to identify with the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but it would have been much more difficult to announce: ‘We are all from Baga!’ (For those who don’t know: Baga is a small town in the north-east of Nigeria where Boko Haram executed two thousand people.) The name ‘Boko Haram’ can be roughly translated as ‘Western education is forbidden,’ specifically the education of women. How to account for the weird fact of a massive sociopolitical movement whose main aim is the hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes? Why do Muslims who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response the best part (for us, at least) of the Western legacy, our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, including the freedom to mock all authorities? One answer is that their target is well chosen: the liberal West is so unbearable because it not only practises exploitation and violent domination, but presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: freedom, equality and democracy.

Back to the spectacle of big political names from all around the world holding hands in solidarity with the victims of the Paris killings, from Cameron to Lavrov, from Netanyahu to Abbas: if there was ever an image of hypocritical falsity, this was it. An anonymous citizen played Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the unofficial anthem of the European Union, as the procession passed under his window, adding a touch of political kitsch to the disgusting spectacle staged by the people most responsible for the mess we are in. If the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, were to join such a march in Moscow, where dozens of journalists have been murdered, he would be arrested immediately. And the spectacle was literally staged: the pictures shown in the media gave the impression that the line of political leaders was at the front of a large crowd walking along an avenue. But another photo was taken of the entire scene from above, clearly showing that behind the politicians there were only a hundred or so people and a lot of empty space, patrolled by police, behind and around them. The true Charlie Hebdo gesture would have been to publish on its front page a big caricature brutally and tastelessly mocking this event.

As well as the banners saying ‘Je suis Charlie!’ there were others that said ‘Je suis flic!’ The national unity celebrated and enacted in large public gatherings was not just the unity of the people, reaching across ethnic groups, classes and religions, but also the unification of the people with the forces of order and control – not only the police but also the CRS (one of the slogans of May 1968 was ‘CRS-SS’), the secret service and the entire state security apparatus. There is no place for Snowden or Manning in this new universe. ‘Resentment against the police is no longer what it was, except among poor youth of Arab or African origins,’ Jacques-Alain Miller wrote last month. ‘A thing undoubtedly never seen in the history of France.’ In short, the terrorist attacks achieved the impossible: to reconcile the generation of ’68 with its arch enemy in something like a French popular version of the Patriot Act, with people offering themselves up to surveillance.

The ecstatic moments of the Paris demonstrations were a triumph of ideology: they united the people against an enemy whose fascinating presence momentarily obliterates all antagonisms. The public was offered a depressing choice: you are either a flic or a terrorist. But how does the irreverent humour of Charlie Hebdo fit in? To answer this question, we need to bear in mind the interconnection between the Decalogue and human rights, which, as Kenneth Reinhard and Julia Reinhard Lupton have argued, are ultimately rights to violate the Ten Commandments. The right to privacy is a right to commit adultery. The right to own property is a right to steal (to exploit others). The right to freedom of expression is a right to bear false witness. The right to bear arms is a right to kill. The right to freedom of religious belief is a right to worship false gods. Of course, human rights do not directly condone the violation of the Commandments, but they keep open a marginal grey zone that is supposed to be out of the reach of (religious or secular) power. In this shady zone I can violate the commandments, and if the power probes into it, catching me with my pants down, I can cry: ‘Assault on my basic human rights!’ The point is that it is structurally impossible, for the power, to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the misuse of a human right without infringing on its proper use, i.e. the use that does not violate the Commandments.

It is in this grey zone that the brutal humour of Charlie Hebdo belongs. The magazine began in 1970 as a successor to Hara-Kiri, a magazine banned for mocking the death of General de Gaulle. After an early reader’s letter accused Hara-Kiri of being ‘dumb and nasty’ (‘bête et méchant’), the phrase was adopted as the magazine’s official slogan and made it into everyday language. It would have been more appropriate for the thousands marching in Paris to proclaim ‘Je suis bête et méchant’ than the flat Je suis Charlie.’

Refreshing as it could be in some situations, Charlie Hebdo’s ‘bête et méchant’ stance is constrained by the fact that laughter is not in itself liberating, but deeply ambiguous. In the popular view of Ancient Greece, there is a contrast between the solemn aristocratic Spartans and the merry democratic Athenians. But the Spartans, who prided themselves on their severity, placed laughter at the centre of their ideology and practice: they recognised communal laughter as a power that helped to increase the glory of the state. Spartan laughter – the brutal mockery of a humiliated enemy or slave, making fun of their fear and pain from a position of power – found an echo in Stalin’s speeches, when he scoffed at the panic and confusion of ‘traitors’, and survives today. (Incidentally, it is to be distinguished from another kind of laughter of those in power, the cynical derision that shows they don’t take their own ideology seriously.) The problem with Charlie Hebdo’s humour is not that it went too far in its irreverence, but that it was a harmless excess perfectly fitting the hegemonic cynical functioning of ideology in our societies. It posed no threat whatsoever to those in power; it merely made their exercise of power more tolerable.

In Western liberal-secular societies, state power protects public freedoms but intervenes in private space – when there is a suspicion of child abuse, for example. But as Talal Asad writes in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech (2009), ‘intrusions into domestic space, the breaching of “private” domains, is disallowed in Islamic law, although conformity in “public” behaviour may be much stricter … for the community, what matters is the Muslim subject’s social practice – including verbal publication – not her internal thoughts, whatever they may be.’ The Quran says: ‘Let him who wills have faith, and him who wills reject it.’ But, in Asad’s words, this ‘right to think whatever one wishes does not … include the right to express one’s religious or moral beliefs publicly with the intention of converting people to a false commitment’. This is why, for Muslims, ‘it is impossible to remain silent when confronted with blasphemy … blasphemy is neither “freedom of speech” nor the challenge of a new truth but something that seeks to disrupt a living relationship.’ From the Western liberal standpoint, there is a problem with both terms of this neither/nor: what if freedom of speech should include acts that may disrupt a living relationship? And what if a ‘new truth’ has the same disruptive effect? What if a new ethical awareness makes a living relationship appear unjust?

If, for Muslims, it is not only ‘impossible to remain silent when confronted with blasphemy’ but also impossible to remain inactive – and the pressure to do something may include violent and murderous acts – then the first thing to do is to locate this attitude in its contemporary context. The same holds for the Christian anti-abortion movement, who also find it ‘impossible to remain silent’ in the face of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of foetuses every year, a slaughter they compare to the Holocaust. It is here that true tolerance begins: the tolerance of what we experience as impossible-to-bear (l’impossible-a-supporter’, as Lacan put it), and at this level the liberal left comes close to religious fundamentalism with its own list of things it’s ‘impossible to remain silent when confronted with’: sexism, racism and other forms of intolerance. What would happen if a magazine openly made fun of the Holocaust? There is a contradiction in the left-liberal stance: the libertarian position of universal irony and mockery, making fun of all authorities, spiritual and political (the position embodied in Charlie Hebdo), tends to slip into its opposite, a heightened sensitivity to the other’s pain and humiliation.

It is because of this contradiction that most left-wing reactions to the Paris killings followed a predictable, deplorable pattern: they correctly suspected that something is deeply wrong in the spectacle of liberal consensus and solidarity with the victims, but took a wrong turn when they were able to condemn the killings only after long and boring qualifications. The fear that, by clearly condemning the killing, we will somehow be guilty of Islamophobia, is politically and ethically wrong. There is nothing Islamophobic in condemning the Paris killings, in the same way that there is nothing anti-Semitic in condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

As for the notion that we should contextualise and ‘understand’ the Paris killings, it is also totally misleading. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley allows the monster to speak for himself. Her choice expresses the liberal attitude to freedom of speech at its most radical: everyone’s point of view should be heard. In Frankenstein, the monster is fully subjectivised: the monstrous murderer reveals himself to be a deeply hurt and desperate individual, yearning for company and love. There is, however, a clear limit to this procedure: the more I know about and ‘understand’ Hitler, the more unforgiveable he seems.

What this also means is that, when approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we should stick to ruthless and cold standards: we should unconditionally resist the temptation to ‘understand’ Arabic anti-Semitism (where we really encounter it) as a ‘natural’ reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians, or to ‘understand’ Israeli measures as a ‘natural’ reaction to the memory of the Holocaust. There should be no ‘understanding’ for the fact that in many Arab countries Hitler is still considered a hero, and children at primary school are taught anti-Semitic myths, such as that Jews use the blood of children for sacrificial purposes. To claim that this anti-Semitism articulates, in a displaced mode, resistance against capitalism in no way justifies it (the same goes for Nazi anti-Semitism: it too drew its energy from anti-capitalist resistance). Displacement is not here a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification. What this claim does involve is the idea that, in the long term, the only way to fight anti-Semitism is not to preach liberal tolerance, but to articulate the underlying anti-capitalist motive in a direct, non-displaced way.

The present actions of the Israel Defence Forces in the West Bank should not be judged against the background of the Holocaust; the desecration of synagogues in France and elsewhere in Europe should not be judged as an inappropriate but understandable reaction to what Israel is doing in the West Bank. When any public protest against Israel is flatly denounced as an expression of anti-Semitism – that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations – it is not enough to insist on the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of particular policies of the state of Israel; one should go a step further and say that it is the state of Israel which, in this case, is desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims, instrumentalising them as a way to legitimise political measures in the present. What this means is that one should flatly reject the notion of any logical or political link between the Holocaust and current Israeli-Palestinian tensions. They are two thoroughly different phenomena: one of them is part of the European history of rightist resistance to the dynamics of modernisation; the other is one of the last chapters in the history of colonisation.

The growth of anti-Semitism in Europe is undeniable. When, for example, the aggressive Muslim minority in Malmö harasses Jews so they are afraid to walk the streets in traditional dress, it should be clearly and unambiguously condemned. The struggle against anti-Semitism and the struggle against Islamophobia should be viewed as two aspects of the same struggle.

In a memorable passage in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001), Ruth Klüger describes a conversation with ‘some advanced PhD candidates’ in Germany:
One reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution … You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.
We have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation. This, perhaps, is the most depressing lesson of terror.
- Slavoj Zizek, "In the Grey Zone"

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Islam's* War on the West

Warriors to the Battlefield

If it's not "Islam" which unites them, what does? Being-in-the-World (Dasein)? And what does it mean to become an "authentic" Moslem?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hysterical Question - Che Vuoi?

The anonymous mechanism of the symbolic order, or another subject in his or her radical alterity, a subject from whom I am forever separated by the "wall of language"? The easy way out of this predicament would have been to read in this discrepancy the sign of a shift in Lacan's development, from the early Lacan focused on the intersubjective dialectic of recognition, to the later Lacan who puts forward the anonymous mechanism that regulates the interaction of subjects (in philosophical terms: from phenomenology to structuralism). While there is a limited truth in this solution, it obfuscates the central mystery of the big Other: the point at which the big Other, the anonymous symbolic order, gets subjectivized.

The exemplary case is divinity: is what we call "God" not the big Other personified, addressing us as a larger-than-life person, a subject beyond all subjects? In a similar way, we talk about History asking something of us, of our Cause calling us to make the necessary sacrifice. What we get here is an uncanny subject who is not simply another human being, but the Third, the subject who stands above the interaction of real human individuals - and the terrifying enigma is, of course, what does this impenetrable subject want from us (theology refers to this dimension as that of Deus absconditus). For Lacan, we do not have to evoke God to get a taste of this abyssal dimension; it is present in every human being:
man's desire is the Other's desire, in which the de /of/ provides what grammarians call a 'subjective determination' - namely, that it is qua /as/ Other that man desires. ... This is why the Other's question - that comes back to the subject from the place from which he expects an oracular reply - which takes some such form as 'Che vuoi?', 'What do you want?' is the question that best leads the subject to the path of his own desire.
-Slavoj Zizek, "From Che vuoi? to Fantasy: Lacan with Eyes Wide Shut."
---

In order to understand the point here we must remember Lacan’s notion that ‘desire is ultimately the Other’s desire: the question-enigma of desire is ultimately not "What do I really want?", but "What does the Other really want from me? What, as an object, am I myself for the Other" - I myself (the subject), as the object-cause of the Other's desire, am the object whose overproximity triggers anxiety (Zizek 2000: 363-364). So the actors become 'suspects' of the big Other when they are 'reduced to the object exchanged or used by the Other (ibid), in this case, the Author.

Bearing this in mind, the actors qua 'suspects' are left with the question 'Che vuoi?' ('What does the Other want from me?'), which signals the role of the hysteric: to constantly question his/her position in relation to the big Other. What we can further claim, in this role, is that the Author appears to act as the Ego-Ideal. This is a term often confused with its obverse, the ideal ego. For Lacan, the ideal ego is simply the image I would like to present to the world of myself - how I wish to be seen. It is therefore considered part of the imaginary. The Ego-Ideal, on the other hand, is the 'agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image' (Zizek 2006:80). In this case it is the Author who the Actors perform for; it is his ideal-artistic vision - which is impossible to distinguish beforehand in so far as it is unknowable even to the Author himself until he has already witnessed it - that they wish to actualize. However, if my claim were to stop there it would miss the role of the superego: that which makes us suppress our 'sinful strivings': namely, that which turns actors into 'suspects'. Although the Author's desires may appear senseless he should not be confused with the G_d of the Old Testament (Yahweh), who is full of tautologies 'I am what I am' or irrational commandments; '[i]n short, this G_d is the G_d of pure Will, of the capricious abyss that lies beyond any global rational order of logos, a G_d who does not have to account for anything he does'(Žižek 2000: 318)
- Bryce Lease, "How Badly Do You Want to Kill Your Father?"

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Waiting...

If you're willing to wait for the love of your life
Please wait by the line
And you know dispersive prisms rainbow
But my native optimism isn't broken by the light

The idea of life without company fell suddenly
It crashed through the ceiling on me
And pinned me to the pine
And layer upon layer of hope and doubt
Will crush bones to oil in time

Are you a pusher or are you a puller?
I pull the weight towards me
And I lack the zest of a lemon, looking forward
Unless I have a woman pushing me

A canopy of red-billed quelea
Passed over the blue
A five hour flock, not one dives down
To tell you the truth

As night falls, a quelea crawls
And whispers on his last wings
So abundant are we, left alone I shall be
But a waited phone never rings

Are you a pusher or are you a puller?
I pull the weight towards me
And I lack the zest of a lemon, looking forward
Unless I have a woman pushing me

Are you a pusher or are you a puller?
We could hold hands for fifteen minutes in the sauna
We could hold hands for a pool length under water
I can push and pull
Her

If you're willing to wait for the love of your life
Please wait by the line
A Flock of Red-Billed Quelea

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lost Origins

No one can tell me,
Nobody knows,
Where the wind comes from,
Where the wind goes.

It's flying from somewhere
As fast as it can,
I couldn't keep up with it,
Not if I ran.

But if I stopped holding
The string of my kite,
It would blow with the wind
For a day and a night.

And then when I found it,
Wherever it blew,
I should know that the wind
Had been going there too.

So then I could tell them
Where the wind goes...
But where the wind comes from
Nobody knows.
- Alan Alexander Milne, "Wind on the Hill"

Friday, February 20, 2015

Alien-Nated

A small boy travels to a distant land,
knows not his custom, language and hand.

Knows not his value, faith, and face,
knows not his virtue, love, and place.

He's alien in this nation of rules and laws.
By virtue, a rebel without a cause.

Trapped in his place of walls without walls,
an alien by nature when his nature calls.

He seeks out others of similar fate,
he seeks them out before it's too late.

They convince him that their cause is just.
They convince him they alone he must trust.

In a nation without station a plan is hatched,
in an intricate pattern the flax is thatched.

One life for the cause with heaven at stake.
He is now in a trance and will not awake.

He's knock, knock, knockin' on Heaven's Gate.
Please, please stop him before it's too late!

Should have never reached this state:
ostracized, separated, alienated and berate.

When will we learn to confront our fears,
the alien in our nature that causes tears?
- Ronald W. Hull, "Alienation"

Monday, February 16, 2015

The 'Problem" of Jouissance

The external symbolic and Superego injunction to 'enjoy'!
Ideological jouissance

With the designation of an inconsistency of the socio-symbolic Other, the positive side of which is obscene enjoyment, have we not consented also to the 'post-modernist' anti-Enlightenment ressentiment? The text on the cover of the French edition of Lacan's Ecrits already belies such an understanding: Lacan conceives there his theoretical effort explicitly as a prolongation of the old struggle of the Enlightenment. The Lacanian criticism of the autonomous subject and his power of reflection, of reflexive appropriation of his objective condition, is therefor far from any affirmation of some irrational ground escaping the reach of reason. Paraphrasing the well-known Marxian formula of capital itself as the limit of capitalism, we should say that according to Lacan the limit of Enlightenment is Enlightenment itself, its usually forgotten obverse already articulated in Descartes and Kant.

The leading motif of the Enlightenment is, of course, some variation of the injunction "Reason autonomously': Use your own head, free yourself of all prejudices, do not accept anything without questioning its rational foundations, always preserve a critical distance...'But Kant had already, in his famous article "What is Enlightenment?", added to this an unpleasant, disquieting supplement, introducing a certain fissure into the very heart of the Enlightenment project: 'Reason about whatever you want and as much as you want - but obey!' That is to say: as the autonomous subject of theoretical reflection, addressing the enlightened public, you can think freely, you can question all authority: but as part of the social 'machine', as a subject in the other meaning of the word, you must obey unconditionally the orders of your superiors. This fissure is proper to the project of Enlightenment as such: we find it already with Descartes, in his Discourse on Method. The obverse of the cogito doubting everything, questioning the very existence of the world, is the Cartesian 'provisional morality', a set of rules established by Descartes to enable him to survive in the everyday existence of his philosophical journey: the very first rule emphasizes the need to accept and obey the customs and laws of the country into which we were born without questioning their authority.

The main point is to perceive how this acceptance of given empirical, 'pathological' (Kant) customs and rules is not some kind of pre-Enlightenment remnant - a remnant of the traditional authoritarian attitude - but, on the contrary, the necessary obverse of the Enlightenment itself: through this acceptance of the customs and rules of social life in their nonsensical, given character, through the acceptance of the fact that 'Law is law', we are internally freed from its constraints - the way is open for free theoretical reflection. In other words, we render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, so that we can calmly reflect on everything. This experience of the given, non-founded character of customs and social rules entails in itself a kind of distance from them. In the traditional, pre-enlightened universe, the authority of the Law is never experienced as nonsensical and unfounded: on the contrary, the Law is always illuminated by the charismatic power of fascination. Only to the already enlightened view does the universe of social customs and rule appear as a nonsensical 'machine' that must be accepted as such.

Of course, we could say that the principal illusion of the Enlightenment consists in the idea that we can preserve a simple distance from the external 'machine' of social customs and thus keep the space of our inner reflection spotless, unblemished by the externality of customs. But this criticism does not affect Kant in so far as his affirmation of the categorical imperative he has taken into account the traumatic, truth-less, non-sensical character of the internal, moral Law itself. The Kantian categorical imperative is precisely a Law which has a necessary, unconditional authority, without being true: it is - in Kant's own word - a kind of 'transcendental fact', a given fact the truth of which cannot be theoretically demonstrated; but its unconditional validity should nonetheless be presupposed for our moral activity to have any sense.

We can contrast this moral Law with the 'pathological', empirically given social laws through a whole set of distinctive features: social laws structure a field of social reality, moral Law is the Real of an unconditional imperative which takes no consideration of the limitations imposed upon us by reality - it is an impossible injunction. 'You can, because you must! {Du kanst, denn du sollst!]; social laws pacify our egotism and regulate social homeostasis; moral Law creates imbalance in this homeostasis by introducing an element of unconditional compulsion. The ultimate paradox of Kant is this priority of practical over theoretical reason: we can free ourselves of external social constraints and achieve the maturity proper to the autonomous enlightened subject precisely by submitting to the 'irrational' compulsion of the categorical imperative.

It is commonplace of Lacanian theory to emphasize how this Kantian moral imperative conceals an obscene superego injunction: 'Enjoy!" - the voice of the Other impelling us to follow our duty for the sake of duty is a traumatic irruption of an appeal to impossible jouissance, disrupting the homeostasis of the pleasure principle and its prolongation, the reality principle. This is why Lacan conceives Sade as the truth of Kant: 'Kant avec Sade'. But in what precisely does this obscenity of the moral Law consist? Not in some remnants, leftovers of the empirical 'pathological' contents sticking to the pure form of the Law and smudging it, but in this form itself. The moral Law id obscene in so far as it is its form itself which functions as a motivating force driving us to obey its command - that is, in so far as we obey moral Law because it is law and not because of a set of positive reasons: the obscenity of moral Law is the obverse of its formal character.

Of course, the elementary feature of Kant's ethics is to exclude all empirical, 'pathological' contents - in other words, all objects producing pleasure (or displeasure) - as the locus of our moral activity, but what remains hidden in Kant is the way this renunciation itself produces a certain surplus-enjoyment [the Lacanian plus-de-jouir]. Let us take the case of Fascism - the Fascist ideology is based upon a purely formal imperative: Obey, because you must! In other words, renounce enjoyment, sacrifice yourself and do not ask about the meaning of it - the value of the sacrifice lies in its very meaninglessness; true sacrifice is for its own end; you must find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in its instrumental value: it is this renunciation, this giving up of enjoyment itself, which produces a certain surplus-enjoyment.

This surplus produced through renunciation is the Lacanian objet petit a, the embodiment of surplus-enjoyment; here we can also grasp why Lacan coined the notion of surplus-enjoyment on the model of the Marxian notion of surplus-value - with Marx, surplus value also implies a certain renunciation of 'pathological', empirical use-value. And Fascism is obscene in so far as it perceives directly the ideological form of its own end, as an end in itself - remember Mussolini's famous answer to the question, 'How do the Fascists justify their claim to rule Italy? What is their programme?' 'Our programme is very simple: we want to rule Italy!" The ideological power of Fascism lies precisely in the feature which was previously perceived by liberal or leftist critics as its greatest weakness: in the utterly void, formal character of its appeal, in the fact that it demands obedience and sacrifice for their own sake. For Fascist ideology, the point is not the instrumental value of the sacrifice, it is in the very form of sacrifice itself, 'the spirit of sacrifice', which is the cure against the liberal-decadent disease, It is also clear why Fascism was so terrified by psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis enables us to locate an obscene enjoyment at work in this act of formal sacrifice.
-Slavoj Zizek, "The Sublime Object of Ideology"

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Inflection Points - Points de Capiton

How, then, can we define the Marxian symptom? Marx 'invented the symptom' (Lacan) by means of detecting a certain fissure, an asymmetry, a certain "pathological" imbalance which belies the universalism of the bourgeois 'rights and duties'. This imbalance, far from announcing the "imperfect realization" of these universal principles - that is, an insufficiency to be abolished by further development - functions as their constitutive moment: the 'symptom' is, strictly speaking, a particular element which subverts its own universal foundation, a species subverting its own genus. In this sense, we can say that the elementary Marxian procedure of 'criticism of ideology' is already 'symptomatic': it consists in detecting a point of breakdown heterogenous to a given ideological field and at the same time necessary for that field to achieve its closure, its accomplished form.

This procedure thus implies a certain logic of exception: every ideological Universal - for example freedom, equality - is 'false' in so far as it necessarily includes a specific case which breaks its unity, lays open its falsity. Freedom, for example: a universal notion comprising a number of species (freedom of speech and press, freedom of consciousness, freedom of commerce, political freedom, and so on) but also, by means of a structural necessity, a specific freedom (that of the worker to sell freely his own labour on the market) which subverts the universal notion. That is to say, freedom is the very opposite of effective freedom: by selling his labour 'freely', the worker loses his freedom - the real content of this free act of sale is the workers enslavement to capital. The crucial point is, of course, that it is precisely this paradoxical freedom, the form of its opposite, which closes the circle of 'bourgeois freedoms'.

The same can also be shown for fair, equivalent exchange, this ideal of the market. When, in pre-capitalist society, the production of commodities has not yet attained universal character - that is, when it is still so-called 'natural production' which predominates - the proprietors of the means of production are still themselves producers (as a rule, at least): it is artisan production: the proprietors themselves work and sell their products on the market. At this stage of development there is no exploitation (in principle at least - that is, if we do not consider the exploitation of apprentices, and so on): the exchange on the market is equivalent, every commodity is paid its full value. But as soon as production for the market prevails in the economic edifice of a given society, this generalization is necessarily accompanied by the appearance of a new, paradoxical type of commodity: the labour force, the workers who are not proprietors of the means of production and who are consequently obliged to sell on the market their own labour instead of the products of their labour.

With this new commodity, the equivalent exchange becomes its own negation - the very form of exploitation, of appropriation of the surplus value. The crucial point not to be missed here is that this negation is strictly internal to equivalent exchange, not its simple violation: the labour force is not 'exploited' in the sense that its full value is not renumerated; in principle at least, the exchange between labour and capital is wholly equivalent and equitable. The catch is that the labour force is a peculiar commodity, the use of which - labour itself - produces a certain surplus over the value of the labour force itself which is appropriated by the capitalist.
- Slavoj Zizek, "The Sublime Object of Ideology"

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The New Americans

He is almost filthier than
The twenty pigeons that he
Somehow has gathered enough
Scraps to feed.

Almighty to them.
Bringer Of Food.
"Look," someone says,
"Parasites on a parasite!"

I think of gods. And parasites,
Picking laughs from
Their unjudgemental
Hands.
Sverre G Holter, "Gods and Parasites" (Oct 27, 2014)

Behind the Law

The so-called 'Kafka's universe' is not a 'fantasy-image of social reality' but, on the contrary, the mise-en-scene of the fantasy which is at work in the midst of social reality itself: we all know very well that bureaucracy is not all-powerful, but our 'effective' conduct in the presence of bureaucratic machinery is already regulated by a belief in its almightiness... In contrast to the usual 'criticism of ideology' trying to deduce the ideological form of a determinate society from the conjunction of its effective social relations, the analytical approach aims above all at the ideological fantasy efficient in social reality itself.

What we call 'social reality' is in the last resort an ethical construction; it is supported by a certain as if (we act as if we believe in the almightiness of bureaucracy, as if the President incarnates the Will of the People, as if the Party expresses the objective interest of the working class...). As soon as the belief (which, let us remind ourselves again, is definitely not to be conceived at a 'psychological' level: it is embodied, materialized, in the effective functioning of the social field) is lost, the very texture of the social field disintegrates. This was already articulated by Pascal, one of Althussar's principle points of reference, in his attempt to develop the concept of "Ideological State Apparatuses'. According to Pascal, the interiority of our reasoning is determined by the external, nonsensical 'machine' - automatism of the signifier, of the symbolic network in which the subjects are caught:
For we must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automaton as mind... Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed. It inclines the automaton, which leads the mind unconsciously along with it.
Here Pascal produces the very Lacanian definition of the unconscious 'the automaton (i.e. the dead, senseless letter), which leads the mind unconsciously [sans le savoir] with 'it'. It follows, from this constitutively senseless character of the Law, that we must obey it not because it is just, good or even beneficial, but simply because it is the law - this tautology articulates the vicious circle of its' authority, the fact that the lat foundation of the Law's authority lies in its process of enunciation:
Custom is the whole equity for the sole reason that it is accepted. That is the mystic basis of its authority. Anyone who tries to bring it back to its first principle destroys it.
The only real obedience, then, is an 'external' one: obedience out of conviction is not real obedience because it is already 'mediated' through our subjectivity - that is, we are not really obeying the authority but simply following our judgement, which tells us that the authority deserves to be obeyed in so far as it is good, wise, beneficent.... Even more than for our relation to 'external' social authority, this inversion applies to our obedience to the internal authority of belief: it was Kierkegaard who wrote that to believe in Christ because we consider him wise and good is a dreadful blasphemy - it is, on the contrary, only the act of belief itself which can give us an insight into his goodness and wisdom. Certainly we must search for rational reasons which can substantiate our belief, our obedience to the religious command, but the crucial religious experience is that these reasons reveal themselves only to those who already believe - we find reasons attesting our belief because we already believe; we do not believe because we have found sufficient good reasons to believe.

'External' obedience to the Law is thus not submission to external pressure, to the so-called non-ideological 'brute-force', but obedience to the Command in so far as it is 'incomprehensible', not understood; in so far as it retains a 'traumatic', 'irrational' character: far from hiding its full authority, this traumatic, non-integrated character of the Law is a positive condition of it. This is the fundamental feature of the psychoanalytic concept of the Superego: an injunction which is experienced as traumatic, 'senseless' - that is, which cannot be integrated into the symbolic universe of the subject. But for the Law to function 'normally', this traumatic fact that the 'custom' is the whole of equity for the sole reason that it is accepted' - the dependence of the Law on its process of enunciation or, to use a concept developed by Laclau and Mouffe, its radically contingent character - must be repressed into the unconscious, through the ideological, imaginary experience of the 'meaning' of the Law, of its foundation in Justice, Truth [or, in a more modern way, functionality):
It would therefore be a good thing for us to obey laws and customs because they are laws... But people are not amenable to this doctrine, and thus, believing that truth can be found and resides in laws and customs, they believe them and take their antiquity as proof of their truth (and not just of their authority, without truth).
It is highly significant that we find exactly the same formulation in Kafka's Trial, at the end of the conversation between K. and the priest:
'I do not agree with that point of view,' said K., shaking his head, 'for if one accepts it, one must accept as true everything the door-keeper says. But you yourself have sufficiently proved how impossible it is to do that.' 'No,' said the priest, 'it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.' 'A melancholy conclusion,' said K. "It turns lying into a universal principle.'
What is 'repressed' then, is not some obscure origin of the Law, but the very fact that the Law is not to be accepted as true, only as necessary - the fact that its authority is without truth. The necessary structural illusion which drives people to believe that truth can be found in laws describes precisely the mechanism of transference: transference i this supposition of Truth, of a Meaning behind the stupid, traumatic, inconsistent fact of the Law.
-Slavoj Zizek, "The Sublime Object of Ideology"

Happy Valentines Day!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Going Rogue

Gippy Grewal returns with a track which has pleased many of his fans as well as critics. The song ‘Zaalam’ focuses on the period of the 1990’s in Punjab when state terror was wreaked upon the Sikhs and Sikh youth were tortured, raped and killed by the Hindustani armed forces. In this video Gippy Grewal plays the role of a soldier’s son who wishes to fall into his father’s footsteps but instead enlists as a Soldier of the Sikh Sangarsh.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Spirit of Antigone

I will not urge you! no! nor if now you list
To help me, will your help afford me joy.
Be what you choose to be! This single hand
Shall bury our lost brother. Glorious
For me to take this labour and to die!
Dear to him will my soul be as we rest
In death, when I have dared this holy crime.
My time for pleasing men will soon be over;
Not so my duty toward the Dead! My home
Yonder will have no end. You, if you will,
May pour contempt on laws revered on High.
- Sophocles, "Antigone"

Time Travel

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Before the Law

“there is nothing bad to fear; once you have crossed that threshold, all is well. Another world, and you do not have to speak”
― Franz Kafka, "Letter to His Father" (details)
But your whole method of upbringing was like that. You have, I think, a gift for bringing up children; you could, I am sure, have been of help to a human being of your own kind with your methods; such a person would have seen the reasonableness of what you told him, would not have troubled about anything else, and would quietly have done things the way he was told. But for me as a child everything you called out to me was positively a heavenly commandment, I never forgot it, it remained for me the most important means of forming a judgment of the world, above all of forming a judgment of you yourself, and there you failed entirely. Since as a child I was with you chiefly during meals, your teaching was to a large extent the teaching of proper behavior at table. What was brought to the table had to be eaten, the quality of the food was not to be discussed—but you yourself often found the food inedible, called it "this swill," said "that cow" (the cook) had ruined it. Because in accordance with your strong appetite and your particular predilection you ate everything fast, hot, and in big mouthfuls, the child had to hurry; there was a somber silence at table, interrupted by admonitions: "Eat first, talk afterward," or "faster, faster, faster," or "There you are, you see, I finished ages ago." Bones mustn't be cracked with the teeth, but you could. Vinegar must not be sipped noisily, but you could. The main thing was that the bread should be cut straight. But it didn't matter that you did it with a knife dripping with gravy. Care had to be taken that no scraps fell on the floor. In the end it was under your chair that there were the most scraps. At table one wasn't allowed to do anything but eat, but you cleaned and cut your fingernails, sharpened pencils, cleaned your ears with a toothpick. Please, Father, understand me correctly: in themselves these would have been utterly insignificant details, they only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me. Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey. I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too, for how could I presume to defy you; or I could not obey because I did not, for instance, have your strength, your appetite, your skill, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; this was the greatest disgrace of all. This was not the course of the child's reflections, but of his feelings.
-Excerpt

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Social Symbolic

THE world today is more and more marked by the frontier separating its insiders from its outsiders, between the "developed" — those to whom human rights, social security and the like apply — and the others, the excluded.

The main concern of the "developed" is to contain the explosive potential of the rest, even if it means the neglect of elementary democratic principles. This opposition, not the one between capitalism and socialism, is what defines the "new world order". The socialist bloc was a desperate attempt at modernisation outside the constraints of capitalism. What is effectively at stake in the present crisis of post-socialist states is the struggle for one's place: who will be admitted — integrated into the developed capitalist order — and who will remain excluded.

Ex-Yugoslavia is perhaps the exemplary case. Every participant in the bloody disintegration tries to legitimise their place "inside" by presenting themselves as the last bastion of European civilisation (the current ideological designation for the capitalist "inside") in the face of oriental barbarism.

For rightwing nationalist Austrians the imaginary frontier is Karavanke, the mountain chain between Austria and Slovenia; beyond it, the Slavic hordes rule.

For the nationalist Slovenes the frontier is the river Kolpa, separating Slovenia from Croatia; we are Mitteleuropa, while Croats are already Balkan, involved in the irrational ethnic feuds which really do not concern us — we are on their side, we sympathise, but in the same way one sympathises with a third world victim of aggression.

For Croats the crucial frontier, of course, is the one between them and Serbs, between western Catholic civilisation and the eastern Orthodox collective spirit, which cannot grasp the values of western individualism. Serbs see themselves as the last line of defence of Christian Europe against the fundamentalist danger embodied in Muslim Bosnians and Albanians.

It should now be clear who, within ex-Yugoslavia, effectively behaves in the civilised, European way: those at the very bottom of this ladder, excluded from belonging to the "developed" — the Muslim Bosnians and Albanians. And today they are paying for it.

Slovenia and Croatia moved fast and aggressively. Against the will of the West, they proclaimed independence and attained their goal, including recognition by the West.

On the other hand, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, behaved as a model pupil of the West. He followed closely western suggestions and proceeded with caution, was always ready to give another chance to any formula for a new Yugoslavia, abstained from provoking the Serbs even when the Yugoslav Army was already fortifying artillery sites on the mountains around Sarajevo. And all this in exchange for assurances that the West would keep in check the Serbs and prevent the Yugoslav Army attacking non-Serbs in Bosnia. He paid for his trust, and for playing a civilised game, with the total destruction of his country.

When western promises proved void and the army attacked, the West threw up its hands and assumed the convenient posture of a distant observer, appalled at the outburst of "primitive Balkan passions".

What then, are these notorious Balkan passions?

There is a story about an anthropological expedition trying to contact in New Zealand a tribe which allegedly danced a terrible war dance in grotesque death masks. When the members of the expedition reached the tribe in the evening they asked the village to perform it for them, and the dance performed next morning did in fact match the description. Satisfied, the expedition returned to civilisation and wrote a much-praised report on the savage rites of the primitives.

However, shortly after, when another expedition arrived at this tribe and learned to speak the language properly it was shown that this terrible dance did not exist in itself at all. In their discussions with the first group of explorers, the aborigines had somehow guessed what the strangers wanted and quickly invented it for them, to satisfy their demand. In short, the explorers received back from the aborigines their own message.

This is what has to be dispelled if we are to understand what the Yugoslav crisis is about: there is nothing entirely self-generated in these ethnic conflicts, the West was from the very beginning included.

Lord Carrington, James Baker, Douglas Hurd, Hans-Dietrich Genscher et al, are today's version of the New Zealand expedition. They act and react in the same way, overlooking how the spectacle of old hatreds erupting in their primordial cruelty is a dance staged for their eyes, a dance for which the West is thoroughly responsible.

Is it coincidence that what is being described as the worst bombardment Sarajevo has experienced should have taken place before the eyes of the world attending the peace conference in London this week? Or surprising that one participant at the alternative conference, being held simultaneously, should point out that there is a view "that if you don't use violence you won't get the attention of the European Community"?

So why does the West accept the narrative of the outburst of ethnic passions?

For a long time, the Balkans have been one of the privileged sites of fantastic investments. Gilles Deleuze said: "Si vous etes pris dans le reve de l'autre, vous etes foutu" — if you are caught in another's dream, you are lost. In ex-Yugoslavia, we are lost, not because of our primitive dreams and myths preventing us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe but because we pay in flesh the price for being the stuff of others' dreams.

The fantasy which organised the perception of ex-Yugoslavia is that of the Balkans as the Other of the West: the place of savage ethnic conflicts long ago overcome by civilised Europe, the place where nothing is forgotten and nothing learned, where old traumas are being replayed again and again, where symbolic links are simultaneously devalued (dozens of cease-fires broken) and overvalued (the primitive warrior's notions of honour and pride).

Against this background, a multitude of myths flourished. For the "democratic left", Tito's Yugoslavia was the mirage of the third way of self-management, beyond capitalism and state-socialism. For the men of culture it was the land of refreshing folkloric diversity (the films of Makavejev and Kusturica); for author Milan Kundera the place where the idyll of Mitteleuropa meets oriental barbarism.

For the western realpolitik of the late 1980s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia functioned as a metaphor for what might happen in the Soviet Union; for France and Great Britain it resuscitated the phantom of the German Fourth Reich perturbing the delicate balance of European politics.

Behind it all lurked the primordial trauma of Sarajevo, of the Balkans as the spark threatening to set all of Europe ablaze. Far from being the Other of Europe, ex-Yugoslavia was rather Europe itself in its Otherness, the screen on to which Europe projected its own repressed reverse.

It is difficult, then, not to recall Hegel's dictum that true evil does not reside in the object perceived as bad, but in the innocent gaze which perceives evil all around. The main obstacle to peace in ex-Yugoslavia is not "archaic ethnic passions", but the gaze of Europe fascinated by the spectacle of these passions.

Against today's journalistic commonplace about the Balkans as the madhouse of thriving nationalism one must point out again and again that the moves of every political agent in ex-Yugoslavia, reprehensible though they may be, are totally rational within the goals they want to attain. The only exception, the only truly irrational factor in it, is the West babbling about archaic ethnic passions.

OLD ethnic hatreds, of course, are far from being simply imagined, they are a historical legacy. The key question is why they exploded now, not earlier or later.

There is one simple answer: the political crisis in Serbia. The determining factor of the Yugoslav tragedy is the survival of the old power structure (the communist bureaucracy, the Federal Army) in Serbia and Montenegro.

It prolonged its domination by putting on nationalist clothes. The moment a truly democratic force were to gain strength in Serbia, the flames of that nationalist passion would extinguish themselves in a couple of weeks.

It may seem that now the Serbian game is over, that the West has finally blamed the true culprit. The real desire of the West is nevertheless discernible in innumerable telltale details: the continuous compulsive search for stains on the other side, in order to establish a kind of balance of guilt where everybody is equally mad; the focusing of attention on humanitarian problems, which not only treats the conflict as if it were a kind of natural disaster but also helps the Serbs carry out their "ethnic cleansing"; the invention of ever-new excuses against military intervention (the Balkan countryside as the ideal ground for prolonged guerrilla warfare); the ridiculous rejection of the desperate Bosnian plea to be allowed to buy arms and thus defend itself because it would be pouring oil on the flames.

As Time magazine said recently: "Western weaponry would probably not be useful to Bosnians without special training…" The blatant racism is unavoidable: how come Serbs in Bosnia can handle sophisticated weaponry, including Mig fighter planes? Why did the same problem not prevent the United States arming anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan?

All the talk about the need for more severe measures to stop ethnic cleansing continues to serve the purpose of putting off the actual implementation of these measures. Consequently, there is no need for psychoanalysis in order to understand what is actually going on in Bosnia, no need to reach for the death-wish to explain the atrocities. The proper subject for analysis is rather the hysterical split that characterises the attitude of the West — the uncanny antagonism between its "official" politics (preventing ethnic cleansing) and its true desire (to allow the Serbs to finish their work and then, after the fait accompli, to impose peace).

In all probability, the West follows the geopolitical calculation which says there will be no peace in the Balkans without a satisfied Serbia — the interests of all other parties can be sacrificed, only Serbia must be allowed to save its face.

Meanwhile, Bosnia lingers on, still alive, yet already written off, treated as a kind of political Aids patient, stigmatised as a mad place where people kill each other for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

Are we to blame them if in the end, they really will become Muslim fundamentalists and resort to desperate terrorist measures?
Slavoj Zizek, "Ethnic Dance Macabre" (August 28, 1992)

On Framing the Stain

Sunday, February 1, 2015

On the Nature of Music...

from Kafka’s "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk":
She does not bring to her public – the people – any deep spiritual content; what she produces is the difference between the people’s “utter silence” and their silence “as such”, marked as silence by way of its opposition to her. (Žižek 2010b: 367)
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The second and inverse form of idiocy is that of those who fully identify with commonsense, who are wholly in favor of the 'big Other' of appearance. In a long series of figures-- beginning with the Greek Chorus in the role of canned laughter or canned crying, always ready to comment on the action with some commonplace wisdom-- one should mention the classic "stupid" partners of the great detectives: Holmes' Watson, Poirot's Hastings. These figures do not only serve as a foil for the detective's greatness; indeed, in one of the novels, Poirot tells Hastings that he is indispensable to the detective work: immersed in common sense, Hastings reacts to the scene of the crime the way the murderer who wanted to erase the traces of his act expected the public to react; it is then only by including in his analysis this expected reaction of the 'big Other' that the great detective can solve the crime. The greatness of Kafka resides (among other things) in his unique ability to present the first figure of idiocy in the guise of the second figure, as something normal and conventional (recall the extravagantly 'idiotic' reasoning in the long debate between the priest and Josef K. which follows the parable on the Door of the Law). "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" is Kafka's very last story, written immediately prior to his death, and so could be considered as Kafka's testament, his last word (while writing it, he knew he was dying). Is "Josephine" then the allegory of the fate of Kafka-the-artist himself? Yes and no. When Kafka was writing the story, he had already lost his voice due to an inflamed throat (moreover, he was, like Freud, tone-deaf as regards music). Even more important is the fact that while at the story's end Josephine disappears, Kafka himself wanted to disappear, to erase all traces after his death (recall his order to Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts). But the true surprise is that what we get in the story is not the expected existential anguish mixed with slimy eroticism-- it is, rather, a simple story of Josephine, the singing mouse, and her relation to the mice people (the translation of Volk as "folk" introduces a totally unwarranted populist dimension). Although Josephine is widely admired, the narrator (an anonymous "I") casts doubt on the quality of her singing:
So is it singing at all? Is it not perhaps just piping? And piping is something we all know about, it is the real artistic accomplishment of our people, or rather no mere accomplishment but a characteristic expression of our life. We all pipe, but of course no one dreams of making out that our piping is an art, we pipe without thinking of it, indeed without noticing it, and there are even many among us who are quite unaware that piping is one of our characteristics. So if it were true that Josephine does not sing but only pipes and perhaps, as it seems to me at least, hardly rises above the level of our usual piping-- yet, perhaps her strength is not even quite equal to our usual piping, whereas an ordinary farmhand can keep it up effortlessly all day long, besides doing his work-- if that were all true, then indeed Josephine's alleged vocal skill might be disproved, but that would merely clear the ground for the real riddle which needs solving, the enormous influence she has.
As the narrator puts it, "this piping of hers is no piping"-- a line which cannot but recall Magritte's famous painting, so that one can imagine a painting of Josephine piping with the title: "This is not piping." The first topic of the story is the enigma of Josephine's voice: if there is nothing special about it, why does it generate such admiration? What is "in her voice more than voice itself"? As Malden Dolar has observed, her meaningless piping (a song deprived of meaning, that is, reduced to the object-voice) functions like Marcel Duchamp's urinoir-- it is an art object not because of any material properties, but only because Josephine occupies the place of the artist-- in herself, she is exactly the same as all "ordinary" members of the people. Here, singing is thus the "art of minimal difference"-- what differentiates her voice from other's voices is of a purely formal nature In other words, Josephine is a purely differential marker; she does not bring to her public-- the people-- any deep spiritual content; what she produces is the difference between the people's "utter silence" and their silence "as such," marked as silence by way of its opposition to her singing. Why, then, if Josephine's voice is the same as all the others', is she needed, why do the people listen to her? Her piping-singing is a pure pretext-- ultimately, the people gather for the sake of gathering:
Since piping is one of our thoughtless habits, one might think that people would pipe in Josephine's audience too; her art makes us feel happy and when we are happy we pipe; but her audience never pipes, it sits in mouse-like stillness; as if we had become partakers in the peace we long for, from which our own piping at the very least holds us back, we make no sound. Is it her singing that enchants us or is it not rather the solemn stillness enclosing her frail little voice?
The last line reiterates the key point: what matters is not her voice as such, but the "solen stillness," the moment of peace, of withdrawal from hard work, that (listening to) her voice brings about. Here the sociopolitical content becomes relevant: the miec people lead harsh and tense lives, difficult to bear, their existence is always precarious and threatened, and the very precarious character of Josephine's piping functions as a stand-in for the precarious existence of the entire mice people:
Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult; frequently as many as a thousand shoulders are trembling under a burden that was really meant only for one pair... This piping, which rises up where everyone is pledged to silence, comes almost like a message from the whole people to each individual; Josephine's thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people's precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world. Josephine exerts herself, a mere nothing in voice, a mere nothing in execution, she asserts herself and gets across to us; it does us good to think of that.
Josephine "is thus the vehicle for the collectivity's affirmation of itself: she reflects their collective identity back to them"; she is needed because "only the intervention of art and the theme of the great artist could make it possible to grasp the essential anonymity of the people, who have no feeling for art, no reverence for the artist." In other words, Josephine "causes [the people] to assemble in silence-- would this be possible without her? She constitutes the necessary element of exteriority that alone permits immanence to come into being. This brings us to the logic of the exception constitutive of the order of universality: Josephine is the heterogeneous One through which the homogeneous All of the people is posited (perceives itself) as such.

Here, however, we see why the mouse community is not a hierarchic community with a Master, but a radically egalitarian "communist" community: Josephine is not venerated as a charismatic Mistress or Genius, her public is fully aware that she is just one of them. So the logic is not even that of a Leader who, with her exceptional position, establishes and guarantees the equality of her subjects (who are equal in their shared identification with their Leader)-- Josephine herself has to dissolve her special position into this equality. This brings us to the central part of Kafka's story, the detailed, often comical description of the way Josephine and her public, the people, relate to each other. Precisely because the people are aware that Josephine's function is just to assemble them, they treat her with egalitarian indifference; when she "demands special privileges (exception from physical labour) as a compensation for her labor or indeed as a recognition of her unique distinction and her irreplaceable service to the community, her request is denied.
For a long time back, perhaps since the very beginning of her artistic career, Josephine has been fighting for exemption from all daily work on account of her singing: she should be relieved of all responsibility for earning her daily bread and being involved in the daily struggle for existence, which-- apparently-- should be transferred on her behalf to the people as a whole. A facile enthusiast-- and there have been such-- might argue that from the mere unusualness of this demand, from the spiritual attitude needed to frame such a demand, that it has an inner justification. But our people draw other conclusions and quietly refuse it. Nor do they trouble much about disapproving the assumptions on which it is based. Josephine argues, for instance, that the strain of working is bad for her voice, that the strain of working is of course nothing to the strain of singing, but it prevents her from being able to rest sufficiently after singing and to recuperate for more singing, she has to exhaust her strength completely and yet, in these circumstances, can never rise to the peak of her abilities. The people listen to her arguments and pay no attention. Our people, so easily moved, sometimes cannot be moved at all. Their refusal is sometimes so decided that even Josephine is taken aback, she appears to submit, does her proper share of work, sings as best she can, but all only for a time, then with renewed strength-- for this purpose her strength seems inexhaustible-- she takes up the fight again.
That is why, when Josephine disappears, narcissistically counting on the fact that her absence will cause the people to miss her, imagining how they will mourn her (like a child who, not feeling loved enough, runs away from home, hoping that his parents will miss him and desperately look for him), she totally miscalculates her position:
She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her. Not that it will be easy for us; how can our gatherings take place in utter silence? Still, were they not silent even when Josephine was present? Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it all will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine's singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?... So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.
Frederick Jameson was right to read "Josephine" as Kafka's sociopolitical utopia, his vision of a radically egalitarian communist society-- with the singular exception that Kafka, for whom humans are forever marked by Superego guilt, was able to imagine a utopian society only amongst animals.
-Slavoj Zizek, "Living in the End Times"

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He who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.
~Robert Browning