Friday, July 31, 2015

Draupadi in Maya's Palace

Draupadi

Draupadi (Sanskrit: द्रौपदी, draupadī, Sanskrit pronunciation: [d̪rəʊpəd̪i]) is described as the Tritagonist in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. According to the epic, she is the "fire born" daughter of Drupada, King of Panchala and also became the common wife of the five Pandavas. She was the most beautiful woman of her time.

Draupadi had five sons; one by each of the Pandavas: Prativindhya from Yudhishthira, Sutasoma from Bheema, Srutakarma from Arjuna, Satanika from Nakula, and Srutasena from Sahadeva.

Draupadi is considered as one of the Panch-Kanyas or Five Virgins.

King Drupada of Panchala had been defeated by the Pandava prince Arjuna on behalf of Drona, who subsequently took half his kingdom. To gain revenge on Drona, he performed a fire-sacrifice (yajña) to obtain a means of besting him. Draupadi emerged as a beautiful dark-skinned young woman together after her sibling Dhrishtadyumna from the sacrificial fire. When she emerged from the fire, a heavenly voice said that she would bring about the destruction of the Kuru line.

Draupadi is described in the Mahabharata as being extraordinarily beautiful, one of the most beautiful women of her time. "Of eyes like lotus-petals and of faultless features endued with youth and intelligence, she is extremely beautiful. And the slender-waisted Draupadi of every feature perfectly faultless, and whose body emitteth a fragrance like unto that of the blue lotus for two full miles around who's existence could take away people's breath, she was the most beautiful woman ever born.".

Maya

Maya or Māyā (Sanskrit māyā) literally means "illusion" and "magic". However, the term has multiple meanings depending on the context. In earlier older language, it literally implies extraordinary power and wisdom, in later Vedic texts and modern literature dedicated to Indian traditions, Māyā connotes a "magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem". In Indian philosophies, Māyā is also a spiritual concept connoting "that which exists, but is constantly changing and thus is spiritually unreal", and the "power or the principle that conceals the true character of spiritual reality".

In Buddhism, Maya was the name of Gautama Buddha's mother. Maya is also the name of a manifestation of Lakshmi, the goddess of "wealth, prosperity and love", in Hinduism. For these reasons, it is a popular name for girls

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Second Thoughts?

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that "thought is the courage of hopelessness" ─ an insight that is especially pertinent for our historical moment, when even the most pessimistic diagnosis as a rule finishes with an uplifting hint at some version of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice; it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlights of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

The double U-turn that the Greek crisis took in July 2015 can appear as nothing other than a step not just from tragedy to comedy but, as Stathis Kouvelakis noted in Jacobin magazine, from tragedy full of comic reversals directly into a theatre of the absurd. Is there any other way to characterise the extraordinary reversal of one extreme to its opposite that would bedazzle even the most speculative Hegelian philosopher? Tired of endless negotiations with EU executives in which one humiliation followed another, Syriza called for a referendum on Sunday 5 July asking the Greek people if they support or reject the EU's proposal of new austerity measures. Although the government clearly stated that it supported a No vote, the result was a surprise: the overwhelming majority, more than 61 per cent, voted No to European blackmail. Rumours began to circulate that the result – victory for the government – was a bad surprise to Alexis Tsipras himself, who had secretly hope that the government would lose, so that a defeat would allow him to save face in surrendering to the EU demands (“We have to respect the voters’ voice”). However, literally the morning after, Tsipras announced that Greece was ready to resume the negotiations, and days later Greece negotiated a EU proposal that is basically the same as what the voters rejected (in some details, even harsher). In short, he acted as if the government had lost, not won, the referendum. As Kouvelakis wrote:
“How is it possible for a devastating ‘no’ to memorandum austerity policies to be interpreted as a green light for a new memorandum? . . . The sense of the absurd is not just a product of this unexpected reversal. It stems above all from the fact that all of this is unfolding before our eyes as if nothing has happened, as if the referendum were something like a collective hallucination that suddenly ends, leaving us to continue freely what we were doing before. But because we have not all become lotus-eaters, let us at least give a brief résumé of what has taken place over the past few days . . . From Monday morning, before the victory cries in the country’s public squares had even fully died away, the theater of the absurd began . . .

The public, still in the joyful haze of Sunday, watches as the representative of the 62 per cent subordinated to the 38 per cent in the immediate aftermath of a resounding victory for democracy and popular sovereignty . . . But the referendum happened. It wasn’t a hallucination from which everyone has now recovered. On the contrary, the hallucination is the attempt to downgrade it to a temporary ‘letting off of steam’, prior to resuming the downhill course towards a third memorandum.”
And things went on in this direction. On the night of 10 July, the Greek parliament gave Alexis Tsipras authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32, but 17 government MPs didn’t back the plan, which means he got more support from the opposition parties than from his own. Days later, the Syriza Political Secretariat, which is dominated by the left wing of the party, concluded that the EU’s latest proposals are "absurd" and “exceed the limits of Greek society's endurance” – leftist extremism?

But the International Monetary Fund itself (in this case a voice of minimally rational capitalism) made exactly the same point: an IMF study published a day earlier showed that Greece needs far more debt relief than European governments have been willing to contemplate so far – European countries would have to give Greece a 30-year grace period on servicing all its European debt, including new loans, and a dramatic maturity extension . . .

No wonder that Tsipras himself publicly stated his doubt about the bailout plan: "We don't believe in the measures that were imposed upon us," he said in a TV interview, making it clear that he supports it out of pure despair, to avoid a total economic and financial collapse. The Eurocrats use such confessions with breathtaking perfidity: now that the Greek government accepts their tough conditions, they doubt the sincerity and seriousness of its commitment. How can Tsipras really fight for a program he doesn't believe in? How can the Greek government be really committed to the agreement when it opposes the referendum result?

However, statements such as that from the IMF demonstrate that the true problem lies elsewhere: does the EU really believe in its own bailout plan? Does it really believe that the brutally imposed measures will set in motion economic growth and thus enable the payment of debts? Or is it that the ultimate motivation for the brutal extortionist pressure on Greece is not purely economic (as it is obviously irrational in economic terms), but politico-ideological – or, as Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times, "[S]ubstantive surrender isn’t enough for Germany, which wants regime change and total humiliation — and there’s a substantial faction that just wants to push Greece out, and would more or less welcome a failed state as a caution for the rest.” One should always bear in mind what a horror Syriza is for the European establishment – a Conservative Polish member of the European Parliament even directly appealed to the Greek army to make a coup d’état in order to save the country.

Why this horror? Greeks are now asked to pay a high price, but not for a realistic perspective of growth. The price they are asked to pay is for the continuation of the "extend and pretend" fantasy. They are asked to ascend to their actual suffering in order to sustain another's (Eurocrats') dream. Gilles Deleuze said decades ago: Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutus. ("If you are caught in another's dream, you're fucked"), and this is the situation in which Greece finds itself. Greeks are not asked to swallow many bitter pills for a realistic plan of economic revival, they are asked to suffer so that others can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed.

The one that now needs awakening is not Greece, but Europe. Everyone who is not caught in this dream knows what awaits us if the bailout plan is enacted: another €90bn or so will be thrown into the Greek basket, raising the Greek debt to roughly €400bn. Most of this will quickly return to western Europe – the true bailout is the bailout of German and French banks, not of Greece – and we can expect the same crisis to explode in a couple of years.

But is such an outcome really a failure? At an immediate level, if one compares the plan with its outcome, obviously yes. At a deeper level, however, one cannot avoid a suspicion that the true goal is not to give Greece a chance but to change it into an economically colonised semi-state kept in permanent poverty and dependency, as a warning to others. But at an even deeper level, there is again a failure – not of Greece, but of Europe itself, of the emancipatory core of European legacy.

The No of the referendum was undoubtedly a great ethico-political act: against a well-coordinated enemy propaganda spreading fears and falsehood, with no clear prospect of what lies ahead, against all pragmatic and "realist" odds, the Greek people heroically rejected the brutal pressure of the EU. The Greek No was an authentic gesture of freedom and autonomy, but the big question is, of course, what happens the day after, when we have to return from ecstatic negation to the everyday dirty business – and here, another unity emerged, the unity of "pragmatic" forces (Syriza and the big opposition parties) against the Syriza left and Golden Dawn. But does this mean that the long struggle of Syriza was in vain, that the No of the referendum was just a sentimental empty gesture, destined to make the capitulation more palpable?

The catastrophic thing about the Greek crisis is that the moment the choice appeared as one between Grexit and capitulation to Brussels, the battle was already lost. Both terms of this choice move within the predominant Eurocratic vision (remember that German anti-Greek hardliners such as Wolfgang Schäuble also prefer Grexit!). The Syriza government was fighting not just for a greater debt relief and for more new money within the same overall co-ordinates, but for the awakening of Europe from its dogmatic slumber.

Therein resides the authentic greatness of Syriza: in so far as the icon of the popular unrest in Greece was the protests on the Syntagma (Constitution) Square, Syriza engaged in a Herculean labour of enacting the shift from syntagm to paradigm, in the long and patient work of translating the energy of rebellion into concrete measures that would change everyday life for the people. We have to be very precise here: the No of the Greek referendum was not a No to “austerity” in the sense of necessary sacrifices and hard work, but a No to the the EU dream of just going on with business as usual.

The country's former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, repeatedly made this point clear: no more borrowing, but an overall rehaul was needed to give the Greek economy a chance to rebound. The first step in this direction should be an increase in the democratic transparency of our power mechanisms. Our democratically elected state apparatuses are thus more and more redoubled by a thick network of “agreements” and non-elected “expert” bodies, which yield real economic (and military) power. Here is Varoufakis’s report on an extraordinary moment in his dealings with the EU negotiator Jeroen Dijsselbloem:
“There was a moment when the president of the Eurogroup decided to move against us and effectively shut us out, and made it known that Greece was essentially on its way out of the eurozone. /. . . / There is a convention that communiqués must be unanimous, and the president can’t just convene a meeting of the eurozone and exclude a member state. And he said, ‘Oh, I’m sure I can do that.’ So I asked for a legal opinion. It created a bit of a kerfuffle.

For about five to ten minutes the meeting stopped; clerks, officials were talking to one another on their phones; and eventually some official, some legal expert addressed me, and said the following words: ‘Well, the Eurogroup does not exist in law; there is no treaty which has convened this group.’ So what we have is a non-existent group that has the greatest power to determine the lives of Europeans. It’s not answerable to anyone, given it doesn’t exist in law; no minutes are kept; and it’s confidential. So no citizen ever knows what is said within . . . These are decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody.”
Sounds familiar? Yes, to anyone who knows how Chinese power functions today, after Deng Xiaoping set in action a unique dual system: the state apparatus and legal system are redoubled by the Party institutions, which are literally illegal – or, as He Weifang, a law professor from Beijing, put it succinctly: “As an organisation, the Party sits outside and above the law. It should have a legal identity – in other words, a person to sue – but it is not even registered as an organisation. The Party exists outside the legal system altogether” (Richard McGregor, The Party, London: Allen Lane 2010, page 22). It is as if, in McGregor's words, the state-founding violence remains present, embodied in an organisation with an unclear legal status:
"It would seem difficult to hide an organisation as large as the Chinese Communist Party, but it cultivates its backstage role with care. The big party departments controlling personnel and the media keep a purposely low public profile. The party committees (known as 'leading small groups'), which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing them, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions."
No wonder that exactly the same thing happened to Varoufakis as to a Chinese dissident who, some years ago, formally brought to court and charged the Chinese Communist Party with being responsible for the Tiananmen Massacre. After a couple of months, he got a reply from the ministry of justice: they cannot pursue his charge, because there is no organisation called “Chinese Communist Party” officially registered in China.

And it is crucial to note how the obverse of this non-transparency of power is false humanitarianism: after the Greek defeat, there is, of course, time for humanitarian concerns. Jean-Claude Juncker immediately stated in an interview that he was so glad about the bailout deal, because it would immediately ease the suffering of the Greek people, which worried him very much. Classic scenario: after a political crackdown, humanitarian concern and help . . . even postponing debt payments.

What should one do in such a hopeless situation? One should especially resist the temptation of Grexit as a great heroic act of rejecting further humiliation and stepping outside – into what? What new positive order are we stepping into? The Grexit option appears as the “real-impossible”, as something that would lead to immediate social disintegration. Krugman writes: “Tsipras apparently allowed himself to be convinced, some time ago, that euro exit was completely impossible. It appears that Syriza didn’t even do any contingency planning for a parallel currency (I hope to find out that this is wrong). This left him in a hopeless bargaining position.”

Krugman’s point is that Grexit is also an “impossible-real”, which can happen with unpredictable consequences and which, as such, can be risked. “All the wise heads saying that Grexit is impossible, that it would lead to a complete implosion, don’t know what they are talking about. When I say that, I don’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong — I believe they are, but anyone who is confident about anything here is deluding himself. What I mean instead is that nobody has any experience with what we’re looking at.”

While in principle this is true, there are nonetheless too many indications that a sudden Grexit now would lead to utter economic and social catastrophe. Syriza economic strategists are well aware that such a gesture would cause an immediate further fall in the standard of living for an additional (minimum) 30 per cent, bringing misery to a new unbearable level, with the threat of popular unrest and even military dictatorship. The prospect of such heroic acts is thus a temptation to be resisted.

Then there are calls for Syriza to return to its roots: it should not become just another governing parliamentary party; the true change can only come from grass roots, from the people themselves, from their self-organisation, not from the state apparatuses . . . another case of empty posturing, because it avoids the crucial problem, which is how to deal with the international pressure concerning debt, or, more generally, how to exert power and run a state. Grass-roots self-organisation cannot replace the state, and the question is how to reorganise the state apparatus to make it function differently.

It is nonetheless not enough to say that Syriza put up a heroic fight, testing what is possible – the fight goes on: it has just begun. Instead of dwelling on the “contradictions” of Syriza policy (after a triumphant No, one accepts the very programme that was rejected by the people) and of getting caught in mutual recriminations about who is guilty (did the Syriza majority commit an opportunistic “treason”, or was the left irresponsible in its preference for Grexit?), one should rather focus on what the enemy is doing. The “contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the “contradictions” of the EU establishment, gradually undermining the very foundations of united Europe.

In the guise of Syriza “contradictions”, the EU establishment is merely getting back its own message in its true form. And this is what Syriza should be doing now. With ruthless pragmatism and cold calculation, it should exploit the tiniest cracks in the opponent’s armour. It should use all those who resist the predominant EU politics, from British conservatives to Ukip in the UK. It should flirt shamelessly with Russia and China, playing with the idea of giving an island to Russia as its Mediterranean military base, just to scare the shit out of Nato strategists. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, now that the EU God has failed, everything is permitted.

When one hears complaints that the EU administration brutally ignores the plight of the Greek people in their blind obsession with humiliating and disciplining the Greeks, that even southern European countries such as Italy or Spain didn’t show any solidarity with Greece, our reaction should be: but is there any surprise in all this? What did the critics expect? That the EU administration will magically understand Syriza's argument and act in compliance with it? The EU administration is simply doing what it was always doing. Then there is the reproach that Greece is looking for help in Russia and China – as if Europe itself were not pushing Greece in that direction with its humiliating pressure.

Then there is the claim that phenomena such as Syriza demonstrate how the traditional left/right dichotomy is outlived. Syriza in Greece is called "extreme left", and Marine Le Pen in France "extreme right", but these two parties in effect have a lot in common: they both fight for state sovereignty, against multinational corporations. It is therefore quite logical that in Greece itself, Syriza is in coalition with a small rightist pro-sovereignty party. On 22 April 2015, François Hollande said on TV that Marine Le Pen today sounds like George Marchais (a French Communist leader) in the 1970s – the same patriotic advocacy of the plight of ordinary French people exploited by international capital – so no wonder Marine Le Pen supports Syriza . . . It was a weird claim, which doesn't say a lot more than the old liberal truism that fascism is also a kind of socialism. The moment we bring into the picture the topic of immigrant workers, this whole parallel falls apart.

The ultimate problem is a much more basic one. The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” (Mandela, Lula) – but then, sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, he or she stumbles upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they risked a step further into disturbing the smooth run of the Capital. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our Real. That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the combination (overlapping) of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: they fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for welfare state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and economy (companies polluting the environment, etc); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multiparty rituals (participation, etc); and, finally, questioning the global capitalist system as such and trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society. Both traps are to be avoided here: the false radicalism (“What really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism; all other fights are secondary”), as well as the false gradualism (“Now we fight against military dictatorship and for simple democracy; forget your socialist dreams: this comes later – maybe . . .”).

When we have to deal with a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive, half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans thatone cannot but characterise as crowd-pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, etc. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realise that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime but corruption remained, and the prospect of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery: the majority not only remain poor, but, to add insult to injury, they are being told that, because they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility. In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself, that this goal was not specific enough – say, that standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged “freely” selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy: democratisation also of social and economic life. In short, we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent in this principle itself. To learn this move from the distortion of a notion, its incomplete realisation, to the distortion immanent to this notion is the big step of political pedagogy.

The ruling ideology mobilises here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. It starts to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, it blames us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalists, investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed, etc. At a more directly political level, US foreign policy elaborated a detailed strategy of how to exert damage control by way of rechannelling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints – as was done successfully in South Africa after the fall of apartheid regime, in Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, and so on. At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

The courage of hopelessness is crucial at this point.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Greece: The Courage of Hopelessness"

Monday, July 27, 2015

Wither Democracy?

The unexpectedly strong No in the Greek referendum was a historical vote, cast in a desperate situation. In my work I often use the well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us, Jews – there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms . . .”

“But,” the bureaucrat interrupts him, “this is pure nonsense. Nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!”.

“Well,” responds Rabinovitch calmly, “that’s my second reason.”

I was informed that a new version of this joke is now circulating in Athens. A young Greek man visits the Australian consulate in Athens and asks for a work visa. “Why do you want to leave Greece?” asks the official.

“For two reasons,” replies the Greek. “First, I am worried that Greece will leave the EU, which will lead to new poverty and chaos in the country . . .”

“But,” interrupts the official, “this is pure nonsense: Greece will remain in the EU and submit to financial discipline!”

“Well,” responds the Greek calmly, “this is my second reason.”

Are then both choices worse, to paraphrase Stalin?

The moment has come to move beyond the irrelevant debates about the possible mistakes and misjudgments of the Greek government. The stakes are now much too high.

That a compromise formula always eludes in the last moment in the ongoing negotiations between Greece and the EU administrators is in itself deeply symptomatic, since it doesn’t really concern actual financial issues – at this level, the difference is minimal. The EU usually accuse Greeks of talking only in general terms, making vague promises without specific details, while Greeks accuse the EU of trying to control even the tiniest details and imposing on Greece conditions that are more harsh than those imposed on the previous government. But what lurks behind these reproaches is another, much deeper conflict. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, recently remarked that if he were to meet alone with Angela Merkel for dinner, they would have found a formula in two hours. His point was that he and Merkel, the two politicians, would treat the disagreement as a political one, in contrast to technocratic administrators such as the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. If there is an emblematic bad guy in this whole story, it is Dijsselbloem whose motto is: “If I get into the ideological side of things, I won’t achieve anything.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter: Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister who resigned on 6 July, talk as if they are part of an open political process where decisions are ultimately “ideological” (based on normative preferences), while the EU technocrats talk as if it is all a matter of detailed regulatory measures. When the Greeks reject this approach and raise more fundamental political issues, they are accused of lying, of avoiding concrete solutions, and so on. And it is clear that the truth here is on the Greek side: the denial of “the ideological side” advocated by Dijsselbloem is ideology at its purest. It masks (falsely presents) as purely expert regulatory measures that are effectively grounded in politico-ideological decisions.

On account of this asymmetry, the “dialogue” between Tsipras or Varoufakis and their EU partners often appears as a dialogue between a young student who wants a serious debate on basic issues, and an arrogant professor who, in his answers, humiliatingly ignores the issue and scolds the student with technical points (“You didn’t formulate that correctly! You didn’t take into account that regulation!”). Or even as a dialogue between a rape victim who desperately reports on what happened to her and a policeman who continuously interrupts her with requests for administrative details. This passage from politics proper to neutral expert administration characterises our entire political process: strategic decisions based on power are more and more masked as administrative regulations based on neutral expert knowledge, and they are more and more negotiated in secrecy and enforced without democratic consultation. The struggle that goes on is the struggle for the European economic and political Leitkultur (the guiding culture). The EU powers stand for the technocratic status quo that has kept Europe in inertia for decades.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T S Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, ie, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is our position today with regard to Europe: only a new “heresy” (represented at this moment by Syriza) can save what is worth saving in European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity. The Europe that will win if Syriza is outmaneuvered is a “Europe with Asian values” (which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but all with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy).

***
In western Europe we like to look on Greece as if we are detached observers who follow with compassion and sympathy the plight of the impoverished nation. Such a comfortable standpoint relies on a fateful illusion – what has been happening in Greece these last weeks concerns all of us; it is the future of Europe that is at stake. So when we read about Greece, we should always bear in mind that, as the old saying goes, de te fabula narrator (the name changed, the story applies to you).

An ideal is gradually emerging from the European establishment’s reaction to the Greek referendum, the ideal best rendered by the headline of a recent Gideon Rachman column in the Financial Times: “Eurozone’s weakest link is the voters.”

In this ideal world, Europe gets rid of this “weakest link” and experts gain the power to directly impose necessary economic measures – if elections take place at all, their function is just to confirm the consensus of experts. The problem is that this policy of experts is based on a fiction, the fiction of “extend and pretend” (extending the payback period, but pretending that all debts will eventually be paid).

Why is the fiction so stubborn? It is not only that this fiction makes debt extension more acceptable to German voters; it is also not only that the write-off of the Greek debt may trigger similar demands from Portugal, Ireland, Spain. It is that those in power do not really want the debt fully repaid. The debt providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Their pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls “superego”: the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty.

Imagine a vicious teacher who gives to his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. The true goal of lending money to the debtor is not to get the debt reimbursed with a profit, but the indefinite continuation of the debt that keeps the debtor in permanent dependency and subordination. For most of the debtors, for there are debtors and debtors. Not only Greece but also the US will not be able even theoretically to repay its debt, as it is now publicly recognised. So there are debtors who can blackmail their creditors because they cannot be allowed to fail (big banks), debtors who can control the conditions of their repayment (US government), and, finally, debtors who can be pushed around and humiliated (Greece).

The debt providers and caretakers of debt basically accuse the Syriza government of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. That’s what is so disturbing for the EU establishment about the Syriza government: that it admits debt, but without guilt. They got rid of the superego pressure. Varoufakis personified this stance in his dealings with Brussels: he fully acknowledged the weight of the debt, and he argued quite rationally that, since the EU policy obviously didn’t work, another option should be found.

Paradoxically, the point Varoufakis and Tsipras are making repeatedly is that the Syriza government is the only chance for the debt providers to get at least part of their money back. Varufakis himself wonders about the enigma of why banks were pouring money into Greece and collaborating with a clientelist state while knowing very well how things stood – Greece would never have got so heavily indebted without the connivance of the western establishment. The Syriza government is well aware that the main threat does not come from Brussels – it resides in Greece itself, a clientelist corrupted state if there ever was one. What the EU bureaucracy should be blamed for is that, while it criticized Greece for its corruption and inefficiency, it supported the very political force (the New Democracy party) that embodied this corruption and inefficiency.

The Syriza government aims precisely at breaking this deadlock – see Varoufakis’s programmatic declaration (published in the Guardian) which renders the ultimate strategic goal of the Syriza government:

A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone. I, for one, am not prepared to blow fresh wind into the sails of this postmodern version of the 1930s. If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis.

The financial politics of the Syriza government followed closely these guidelines: no deficit, tight discipline, more money raised through taxes. Some German media recently characterised Varoufakis as a psychotic who lives in his own universe different from ours – but is he so radical?

What is so enervating about Varoufakis is not his radicalism but his rational pragmatic modesty – if one looks closely at the proposals offered by Syriza, one cannot help noticing that they were once part of the standard moderate social democratic agenda (in Sweden of the 1960s, the programme of the government was much more radical). It is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a “radical” left to advocate these same measures – a sign of dark times but also a chance for the left to occupy the space which, decades ago, was that of moderate centre left.

But, perhaps, the endlessly repeated point about how modest Syriza’s politics are, just good old social democracy, somehow misses its target – as if, if we repeat it often enough, the eurocrats will finally realise we’re not really dangerous and will help us. Syriza effectively is dangerous, it does pose a threat to the present orientation of the EU – today’s global capitalism cannot afford a return to the old welfare state.
So there is something hypocritical in the reassurances of the modesty of what Syriza wants: it effectively want something that is not possible within the coordinates of the existing global system. A serious strategic choice will have to be made: what if the moment has come to drop the mask of modesty and openly advocate a much more radical change that is needed to secure even a modest gain?

Many critics of the Greek referendum claimed that it was a case of pure demagogic posturing, mockingly pointing out that it was not clear what the referendum was about. If anything, the referendum was not about the euro or drachma, about Greece in EU or outside it: the Greek government repeatedly emphasised its desire to remain in the EU and in the eurozone. Again, the critics automatically translated the key political question raised by the referendum into an administrative decision about particular economic measures.

***
In an interview with Bloomberg on 2 July, Varoufakis made clear the true stakes of the referendum. The choice was between the continuation of the EU politics of the last years that brought Greece to the edge of ruin – the fiction of “extend and pretend” (extending the payback period, but pretending that all debts will eventually be paid) – and a new realist beginning that would no longer rely on such fictions, and would provide a concrete plan about how to start the actual recovery of the Greek economy.

Without such a plan, the crisis would just reproduce itself again and again. On the same day, even the IMF conceded that Greece needs a large-scale debt relief to create “a breathing space” and get the economy moving (it proposes a 20-year moratorium on debt payments).

The No in the Greek referendum was thus much more than a simple choice between two different approaches to economic crisis. The Greek people have heroically resisted the despicable campaign of fear that mobilised the lowest instincts of self-preservation. They have seen through the brutal manipulation of their opponents who falsely presented the referendum as a choice between euro and drachma, between Greece in Europe and “Grexit”.

Their No was a No to the eurocrats who prove daily that they are unable to drag Europe out of its inertia. It was a No to the continuation of business as usual; a desperate cry telling us all that things cannot go on the usual way. It was a decision for authentic political vision against the strange combination of cold technocracy and hot racist clichés about the lazy, free-spending Greeks. It was a rare victory of principles against egotist and ultimately self-destructive opportunism. The No that won was a Yes to full awareness of the crisis in Europe; a Yes to the need to enact a new beginning.

It is now up to the EU to act. Will it be able to awaken from its self-satisfied inertia and understand the sign of hope delivered by the Greek people? Or will it unleash its wrath on Greece in order to be able to continue its dogmatic dream?
- Slavoj Zizek, "Greferendum: The Greeks are Correct"

Sunday, July 26, 2015

What is Fundamentalism?

....a reaction to the problems of global capitalism?

from the Washington Post
Dissatisfaction and protest are roiling the politics of summer 2015. They are evident in the response to the angry rhetoric from Donald Trump, in the crowds that come to hear Bernie Sanders bash Wall Street and in the rallies demanding racial justice. For presidential candidates, there is no safe harbor. Ignore the mood at your peril; engage it at your peril.

The discontent is real, whether economic, racial or cultural. It knows no particular ideological boundaries. It currently disrupts both the Republican and Democratic parties. It reflects grievances that long have been bubbling. It reflects, too, the impatience with many political leaders — what they say and how they say it.

The economic collapse of 2008 continues to ripple through the lives of many families, despite the drop in unemployment. Steady but slow growth has not been balm enough to give these families, many of whom see a system rife with inequity, much optimism about the future. Instead, they see the American Dream as part of the nation’s past.

The uproar over illegal immigration underscores the anger over what many still see as broken borders, an issue heightened by the recent killing in San Francisco of a young woman by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record who had been deported but returned to the country. But immigration also is tied to the broader cultural reaction to demographic changes that continue to remake the face of the country and generate tensions that are at the heart of political differences.

Racial issues remain front and center, whether the killings in a black church in Charleston by a young man who wanted to start a race war or repeated episodes that have raised hard questions of how police and law enforcement officials treat African Americans. All this is a reminder that, almost seven years after the election of the nation’s first black president and all of the progress that made that possible, work remains to be done.

It is tempting to try to dismiss Trump for what he is — a reality TV showman who talks as much about himself as anything else. The support he is receiving in national polls, however, suggests more than just a response to a celebrity with a loud voice. He has tapped into something.

Trump is not particularly conservative — or, more accurately, he seems to have no fixed ideology. He amplifies dissatisfaction without proposing real solutions to the country’s problems, other than building a big wall. Yet he speaks about things in a language so blunt and uncharacteristic of politicians that it wins visceral approval from disaffected Americans.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says Trump brings out the “crazies” in the Republican Party on the issue of immigration. In fact, Trump’s candidacy highlights the reality that there is an unresolved debate within the GOP about what to do about it. This is an argument of long standing. Each time McCain and other Republicans have stepped up to solve it with a comprehensive solution, they have been rebuffed by the party’s conservative base. Trump has scratched at the wound again this summer.

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who is running for the Democratic nomination, seems to be an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began four years ago. That movement struggled to find political traction the way the tea party movement had two years earlier. But it nonetheless had an indelible impact on the political dialogue by framing the economic debate as the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent.

Obama carefully subsumed the unrest represented by the Occupy Wall Street movement into his middle-class message in 2012. In Mitt Romney, he found the perfect foil, an opponent he portrayed as an out-of-touch plutocrat. That was enough to win reelection.

Yet four years later, the Democrats find themselves debating not just Republicans about the economy but one another, as well. They debate how far left they should move to deal with the issues of income and wealth inequality and the power of what Sanders calls “the billionaire class.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton is part of the way there in responding to the economic unrest, at least rhetorically. Sanders says that she and he continue to have major disagreements on the particulars of what to do. The outpouring of support he has seen at events around the country and the recent rise in his poll numbers in New Hampshire and Iowa will keep the pressure on Clinton to keep responding. She will try to calibrate the extent of her move to the left.

The signs of discontent have flummoxed many of the presidential candidates. Each party wants this election to be about the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the other. Yet the intraparty strife cannot easily be ignored.

Republican candidates were slow to challenge Trump’s language on immigration — both those who strongly disagree with his positions and those who generally agree. Engaging Trump carries risks. He swings back hard, sometimes wildly but sometimes with the nimbleness and precision of a practiced politician.

Many Republicans want Trump to go away. But they are wary about trying to hasten his fall because they fear they will pay too high a price among those for whom he has provided a voice.

Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley went to the Netroots Nation convention a week ago, no doubt looking to find a sympathetic audience for their populist economic message. It was an event, after all, that Clinton did not attend, for the obvious reason that she likely would not have been welcomed.

Instead, though, Sanders and O’Malley were caught unprepared for the interruptions from the Black Lives Matter movement, and neither looked particularly adept or comfortable as they responded. Sanders seemed to throw up his hands in frustration over the interruption. Then he invoked his civil rights work as evidence that he stood with African Americans. O’Malley said that “all lives matter” and later apologized. Clinton was the lucky one for not having attended, but she will not escape the issue, either.

[Why Democrats are struggling to grasp Black Lives Matter]

Few Republicans expect Trump to become their party’s nominee. They worry that his candidacy alone, if left to run for months, could condemn them to another defeat in November 2016, even if he eventually disappears. Their other concern is that Trump might eventually run as an independent, in which case he could drain more than enough votes from their nominee to cost them the general election.

Not many Democrats yet think Sanders has the staying power to defeat Clinton, even if he can give her a good scare. Strange things happen in nomination contests. But Clinton’s advisers vow they will not be caught by surprise by an insurgency from the left.

Even if both Trump and Sanders end up merely as interesting characters rather than long-distance runners, the unrest that has contributed to the attention they are now receiving will remain. Distrust of the political class will infect the campaign, adding to the burdens the major party nominees will carry into the general election and beyond. It is embedded in the politics of now.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Necessary Dualisms

Already blushes in thy cheek
The bosom-thought which thou must speak;
The bird, how far it haply roam
By cloud or isle, is flying home;
The maiden fears, and fearing runs
Into the charmed snare she shuns;
And every man, in love or pride,
Of his fate is never wide.

Will a woman's fan the ocean smooth?
Or prayers the stony Parcae sooth,
Or coax the thunder from its mark?
Or tapers light the chaos dark?
In spite of Virtue and the Muse,
Nemesis will have her dues,
And all our struggles and our toils
Tighter wind the giant coils.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, July 24, 2015

From the Abstract to the Concrete

Paintings from the 1999 Bruce Beresford film, "Double Jeopardy"
(1) a publication

(2) a newspaper

(3) The San Francisco Chronicle

(4) the May 18 edition of the The San Francisco Chronicle

(5) my copy of the May 18 edition of the The San Francisco Chronicle

(6) my copy of the May 18 edition of the The San Francisco Chronicle as it was when I first picked it up (as contrasted with my copy as it was a few days later: in my fireplace, burning)
Wassily Kandinsky, "Study for the cover of der Blaue Reiter Almanac" (1911)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Scientia potentia est...

...In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographer's Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

- Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
- Jorge Luis Borges, "On Exactitude in Science" (translated by Andrew Hurley)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do you have pulse? Are you breathing?

"Liberty is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses."

"What constitutes a republic is the total destruction of everything that stands in opposition to it."

"The conspirators who have died, think you they were the children of liberty, because for one brief moment they resembled them?"

"Those who would make revolutions in the world, those who want to do good in this world must sleep only in the tomb."
- Louis Antoine Léon Florelle de Saint-Just

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Form vs. Substance?

The subject ($) is trapped by the Other through a paradoxical object-cause of desire in the midst if it (a), through this secret supposed to be hidden in the Other: $<>a -- the Lacanian formula of fantasy. (...) The fundamental Lacanian thesis of fantasy is that in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy is on the side of reality: it is, as Lacan once said, the support that gives consistency to what we call 'reality'.

When Lacan says that the last support of what we call 'reality' is a fantasy, this is definitely not to be understood in the sense of 'life is just a dream', 'what we call reality is just an illusion', and so forth. (...) The Lacanian thesis is, on the contrary, that there is always a kernel, a leftover which persists and cannot be reduced to a universal play of illusory mirroring. The difference between Lacan and 'naive realism' is that for Lacan, the only point at which we approach this hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves 'it was just a dream', thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy-framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself.

The fascinating 'secret' [of a narration] is precisely the Lacanian objet petit a, the chimerical object of fantasy, the object causing our desire and at the same time--this is the paradox--posed retroactively by this desire; in 'going through the fantasy' we experience how this fantasy-object (the 'secret') only materializes the void of our desire.

[Lacan] tried to isolate [the] dimension of enjoyment as that of fantasy, and to oppose symptom ond fantasy through a whole set of distinctive features: symptom is a signifying formation which, so to speak, 'overtakes itself' towards its interpretation--that is, which can be analysed; fantasy is an inert consruction which cannot be analysed, which resists interpretation. Symptom implies and addresses some non-barred, consistent big-Other which will retroactively confer on it its meaning; fantasy implies a crossed out, blocked, barred, non-whole, inconsistent Other--that is to say, it is filling out a void in the Other.

Lacan put, at the end of the curve designating the question 'Che vuoi?' the formula of fantasy ($<>a): fantasy is an answer to this 'Che vuoi?' ; it is an attempt to fill out the gap of the question with an answer.

Fantasy appears, then, as an answer to 'Che vuoi?' , to the unbearable enigma of the desire of the Other, of the lack in the Other; but is is at the same time fantasy itself which, so to speak, provides the co-ordinates of our desire--which constructs the frame enabling us to desire something. The usual definition of fantasy ('an imagined scenario representing the realization of desire') is therefore somewhat misleading, or at least ambiguous: in the fantasy-scene the desire is not fulfilled, 'satisfied', but constituted (given its objects, and so on)--through fantasy, we learn 'how to desire'. In this intermediate position lies the paradox lies the paradox of fantasy: it is the frame co-ordinating our desire, but at the same time a defence against 'Che vuoi?' , a screen concealing the gap, the abyss of desire of the Other. Sharpening the paradox to its utmost--to tautology--we could say that desire itself is a defence against desire: the desire structured through fantasy is a defence against the desire of the Other, against this 'pure', trans-phantasmic desire (i.e. the 'death drive' in its pure form).

The way fantasy functions can be explained through reference to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: The role of fantasy in the economy of desire is homologous to that of transcendental schematism in the process of knowledge (Baas, 1987). In Kant, transcendental schematism is a mediator, an intermediary agency between empirical content (contingent, inner-worldly, empirical objects of experience) and the network of transcendental categories: it is the name of the mechanism through which empirical objects are included in the network of transcendental categories which determine the way we perceive and conceive them (as substances with properties, sunmitted to casual links, and so on). A homologous mechanism is at work with fantasy: how does an empirical, positively given object become an object of desire; how does it begin to contain some X, some unknown quality, something which is 'in it more than it' and makes it worthy of our desire? by entering the framework of fantasy, by being included in a fantasy-scene which gives consistency to the subject's desire.

Fantasy conceals the fact that the Other, the symbolic order, is structured around some traumatic impossibility, around something which cannot be symbolized--i.e. the real of jouissance: through fantasy, jouissance is domesticated, 'gentrified'--so what happens with desire afetr we 'traverse' fantasy? Lacan's answer, in the last pages of his Seminar XI, is drive, ultimately the death drive: 'beyond fantasy there is no yearning or some kindred sublime phenomenon, 'beyond fantasy' we find only drive, its pulsation around the sinthome. 'Going-through-the-fantasy' is therefore strictly correlative to identification with sinthome.

Fantasy is a basic scenario filling out the empty space of a fundamental impossibility, a screen masking a void. 'There is no sexual relationship', and this impossibility is filled out by the fascinating fantasy-scenario--that is why fantasy is, in the last resort, always a fantasy of the sexual relationship, a staging of it. As such, fantasy is not to be interpreted, only 'traversed': all we have to do is experience how there is nothing 'behind' it, and how fantasy masks precisely this 'nothing'.

In the third period [of the psychoanalytic cure we have the big Other, the symbolic order, with a traumatic element at its very heart; and in Lacanian theory the fantasy is conceived as a construction allowing the subject to come to terms with this traumatic kernel. At this level, the final moment of the analysis is defined as 'going through the fantasy [la traversée du fantasme]': not its symbolic interpretation but the experience of the fact that the fantasy-object, by its fascinating presence, is merely filling out a lack, a void in the Other. There is nothing 'behind' the fantasy; the fantasy is a construction whose function is to hide this void, this 'nothing'--that is, the lack in the Other.

The Real is therefore simultaneously both the hard, impenetrable kernel resisting symbolization and a pure chimerical entity which has in itself no ontological consistency. (...) As we have already seen, this is precisely what defines the notion of traumatic event: a point of failure of symbolization, but at the same time never given in its positivity--it can be constructed only backwards, from its structural effects. All its effectivity lies in the distortions it produces in the symbolic structure and, as such, the retroactive effect of this structure.

What the object is masking, dissimulating, by its massive, fascinating presence, is not some other positivity but its own place, the void, the lack that it is filling in by its presence--the lack in the Other. And what Lacan calls 'going-through the fantasy' consists precisely in the experience of such an inversion apropos of the fantasy-object: the subject must undergo the experience of how the ever-lacking object-cause of desire is in itself nothing but an objectification, and embodiment of a certain lack; of how its fascinating presence is here only to mask the emptiness of the place it occupies, the emptiness which is exactly the lack in the Other--which makes the big Other (the symbolic order) perforated, inconsistent.
Zizek, Slavoj. "The Sublime Object of Ideology" (1989)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Some Clowning Around is Nothing to Get Hysterical About

...the question of "Che vuoi?" defines the position of hysteria. The hysteric is never clear what the Other wants and is therefore always plagued by a kind of self-doubt, manifest in a recurrent questioning. In a straightforward hysteria the subject believes that what the Other wants from him or her is love. In obsessional neurosis, which is a sub-set of hysteria, the subject believes that what the Other wants is work, and so the obsessional devotes him or herself to frentic activity... Despite its everyday associations with so-called sexual deviancy, perversion is also a technical term that the Lacanian psychoaalysis uses to designate a certainty that a subject knows what the Other wants. The pervert is therefore defined by a lack of questioning. He or she is convinced of the meaning of the desire of the Other.
- Tom Meyers, "Slavoj Zizek"

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Master-Slave Paradox

...or Hegel's Secret Syllogism
First premise: an individual's "right of distress" to violate the law when his or her life is in danger or his or her survival is not possible.

Second premise: there is, in a modern society, a whole class of people, systematically created by the existing social order, whose normal survival is not possible.

Conclusion: so that class, even more so than an individual, should possess the :right of distress" and rebel against the existing legal order.
In short, what we get with such a reading of Hegel is nothing less than a Maoist Hegel, a Hegel who tells us what Mao told the young at the outset of the Cultural Revolution: "It is a right to rebel!" Therein lies the lesson of the true Master: a true Master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, his message is not "You cannot!", and not "You have to...!", but a releasing "You can!" - what? Do the impossible, namely what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation - and today, this means something very precise: you can think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives. A Master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom: when we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or rather, what we always already wanted without knowing it). A Master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly - to gain this access we have to be pushed from the outside, since our "natural state" is one of inert hedonism, of what Badiou calls the "human animal". The underlying paradox here is that the more we live as "free individuals with no Master," the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities - we have to be impelled or disturbed into freedom by a Master.


In Udi Alone's documentary "Art/Violence", a tribute to Juliano MerKhamis, the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, a young Palestinian actress describes what Juliano meant to her and her colleagues: he gave them their freedom, he made them aware of what they could do, he opened up a new possibility for them, homeless kids from a refugee camp. This is the role of an authentic Master: when we are afraid of something (and fear of death is the ultimate fear that makes us slaves), a true friend will say something like: "Don't be afraid, look, I'll do it for free - not because I have to, but out of my love for you; I'm not afraid!" In doing so he sets us free, demonstrating in actu that it can be done, and that we can do it too, that we aren't slaves. Let us recall, from Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead", the description of the impact Howard Roark makes on the audience in the courtroom where he stands on trial:
Roark stood before them as each man stands in the innocence of his own mind. But Roark stood like that before a hostile crowd - and they knew suddenly that no hatred was possible for him. For the flash of an instant, they grasped the manner of his consciousness. Each asked himself: do I need anyone's approval? - does it matter? - am I tied? - And for that instant, each man was free - free enough to feel benevolence for every other man in the room. It was only a moment; the moment of silence when Roark was about to speak.
This is the way Christ brings freedom: confronting Him, we become aware of our own freedom. Such a Master is not a subject supposed to know, but also not simply a subject supposed to be free - in short, he is not a subject of transference, which is why it is also wrong to see his position as equivalent to that of an analyst in the analytical social link. The obvious question to be raised here is: why does a subject need a Master to assume his or her freedom? Does not such an assumption amount to a kind of pragmatic paradox wherein the very form (a Master gives me freedom) undermines the content (my freedom)? Should we not follow the well-known motto of all emancipatory movements: freedom cannot be handed down to us by a benevolent master but has to be won through hard struggle?
- Slavoj Zizek, "Absolute Recoil"

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Bum Rap...

Some women’s bums are standard size,
while others’ are humungous,
and some are daintier than pies
of mushroom-flavored fungus.
Some are shaped like pigskin balls
while others are much rounder,
some are high as prison walls,
and flatter than a flounder.
They sometimes don’t match either tit,
and may be callipygian
although the bosom’s not a hit,
and breast is linked to pigeon.
Some, like men’s moustaches, droop,
while other are far firmer
than Chinese tourists in a group
from whom you’ll hear no murmur
because they are polite. I’m not.
When I catch any glimpse
of bums of someone who is hot,
without a man who crimps
my style by seeming to possess her,
I raise my hand like Moses
against Amalek, be they lesser
or greater than their noses,
for natural these assets are,
and therefore must be treasured
by hands as well as eyes afar
that help them to be measured.
- gershon hepner (12/28/05)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Closing Ceremony

The festival of San Fermín in the city of Pamplona (Navarre, Spain) is a deeply rooted celebration held annually from 12:00, 6 July, when the opening of the party is marked by setting off the pyrotechnic chupinazo, to midnight 14 July, with the singing of the Pobre de Mí. While its most famous event is the encierro, or the running of the bulls, which happens at 8:00 am from 7 July to 14 July, the week-long celebration involves many other traditional and folkloric events. It is known locally as Sanfermines and is held in honor of Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarre. Its events were central to the plot of The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, which brought it to the general attention of English-speaking people. It has become probably the most internationally renowned fiesta in Spain. Over 1,000,000 people come to participate in this festival.
The San Fermin fiestas officially end on the 14th July. The people from Pamplona gather in front of the town hall balcony and solemnly end the eight days of festivities just experienced. At twelve midnight a mass of lit candles are sadly waved after the mayor has announced the end of the fiestas. The song which has given its name to this final act will be sung throughout the night: "Pobre de mí, pobre de mí, que se han "acabao" las fiestas de San Fermín” (Poor old me, poor old me, the San Fermin fiestas have ended). Despite this, the celebrations continue until dawn.

The start and end of the San Fermin fiestas are celebrated at the same place, with the same protagonists and at the same hour. However the "Pobre de Mi" is the very antithesis of the Chupinazo in which the rocket is fired to mark the start of the fiestas. Now it is night instead of day, sadness instead of gaiety, accumulated tiredness instead of a desire to have fun. As on the 6th July, a crowd of people concentrate in the Town hall square shortly before midnight. At 12 o'clock on the dot, the mayor appears on the balcony to end the fiestas and, addressing the people, he declares: "There's not long to go before the glorious fiesta of San Fermin" and he urges everyone to take part in the San Fermin fiestas of the following year. The crowd then sings the "Pobre de Mí" whilst hundreds of candles are lit to illuminate the darkness of the night. The custom is then for everyone to take off their red scarves as a sign that the fiestas are officially over.

From the adjoining Plaza de los Burgos square, a series of rockets are set off to mark the end of the fiestas. The people from Pamplona must then get used to the idea of returning to normality. Many will continue with the fiestas for a few more hours before finally taking off their red scarves.

Tips: To fully participate in the Pobre de Mi, you need to have a candle. If you forget to bring one, you can buy one on the street, as you get closer to the Town hall. Once there, let yourself be moved by the atmosphere and sing an emotive “Pobre de mí”, together with the “ya falta menos” (there's not long to go) and other songs marking the end of the fiestas.

As an alternative to the official act, the Peñas hold their own particular fiesta in the Plaza del Castillo square. They are easily distinguished by their banners and their members dancing to the bands. Given the fact that, at this time, there are few bars open to allow you to continue festivities, the "Pobre de Mi" of the Peñas is a good opportunity for prolonging the evening.

A third point of encounter is the Plaza del Consejo square, although this does not appear in the official program. For the last 26 years the end of the fiestas has been celebrated here with considerable success, with hundreds of persons coming to this square to sing and dance, holding their red scarves in the air. The members of the El Chanclazo Peña were the first to come to this square on the last night of San Fermines and they come there ever since.

What We Have

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.
- James Joyce, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", [Stephen Daedalus’ “Villanelle of the Temptress”](1915)

Monday, July 13, 2015

SuperEgo Super Heroes

F*ck the Law! We Demand JUSTICE!
In a sense, the basic plot structure of the Batman trilogy was never really about the tortured psyche of a billionaire playboy working through the childhood trauma of the violent death of his parents by dressing up in a bat costume by night to fight (and produce, as the familiar Foucaultian axiom runs) crime. It could be amusing, if admittedly a bit facile, to submit Batman to a sort of wild psychoanalysis. Bruce Wayne, in this scenario, would figure as a kind of psychotic, working through the loss of paternal authority/ the phallus (the nom du père is blazoned across a sky-scraper at the heart of the city in the first installment of the trilogy, after all) by identifying with his reviled phobic object. In his analysis of Little Hans, the phobia of being bitten by a horse who would fall down – and the motif of the fall is cortical to the “origin” story of Batman – revealed to Freud the role phobias played in the Oedipal complex as narratives for imposing order and containing the traumatic real of desire.

To be sure, the tortured psychodrama of a melancholic billionaire undeniably forms the surface content of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. At the level of what we might call its absent narrative center, however, this film series has always been about two, interrelated dilemmas. First, crises in the institutions of the democracy: the press (which the Joker manipulates to carry out his plan of mayhem; the social welfare state (hospitals and schools); endemic corruption and dishonesty amongst elected officials and the police (the overriding theme of all three films); and, finally, the problem of popular sovereignty itself – that is, the theme, or question, of vigilante violence as a kind of exception to democratic rule of law. Perhaps, as Chris Boge noted in a recent conference at the Birkbeck Institute, this is why, in the second film (released in the aftermath of the NSA spying scandals of the latter part of the Bush administration), Harvey Dent appears to be citing Rousseau’s discussion of dictatorship, the suspension of law and the state of exception in ancient Rome (Boge 2012: unpaginated). When asked, “Who appointed the Batman?” Dent quips: “We all did, all of us who stood by and let the scum take over our city” (a city we might take in a broader sense as the polis).

These themes are inextricably interwoven, however, with a second, intractable dilemma to which Nolan’s cinematic work only really alludes but which constitutes its invisible core: the crises of capitalism. We shall return to this hypothesis, but before we turn to the representation of “the people” in The Dark Knight Rises, consider the following thread running through the trilogy, and which seems to support our hypothesis that, at some disavowed level of narrative knowledge, the Batman films are about the contradictions between democracy and capital. In Batman Begins, the “League of Shadows” discovers a force vastly more efficient in its destructive capacity than, say, fires or plagues: capitalism; in The Dark Knight an international bank based in Hong Kong, in an eerie anticipation of the HSBC scand al, launders money for the mafia all while doing “respectable” business with the Wayne Corporation; finally, in the third film, the impoverishment of the masses drives them, with more than a little help from Bane, to the creation of a revolutionary Commune.

So with whom can we, and with whom must we not, identify in The Dark Knight Rises ? Who is the “bad guy”? The most obvious answer is Bane, the hulking villain who seizes control of Gotham city, unleashes a wave of anarchy, breaks Batman’s back and has him imprisoned in a pit, and threatens Gotham with nuclear annihilation. Of course, this is standard Hollywood fare; any alternative to capitalism or parliamentary regimes is invariably and nebulously referred to as anarchy – an - archos in the strict sense of the absence of law as such (above all, the absence of private property and due legal process). Whence the spooky scenes of the wealthy being expelled from their mansions and brought before revolutionary tribunals – tribunals no doubt meant to evoke the French Terror’s comité de salut public, and which are presided over by Hollywood’s iteration of Saint - Just: the Scarecrow. (Let us resist the temptation to read too much into this choice of character, but suffice to say it may be something like an ideological parapraxis: the Scarecrow holds the key to unlocking and exploiting his victims’ deepest fears. It may after all be only too fitting that such a character would represent revolutionary justice.) Then there is Miranda Tate/Talia Al Ghul, of course. The problem here is that, in its final moments, the film actually invites the spectator to explicitly identify with these two figures by (narratively and visually) suturing our point-of-view with that of the “villains”: Bane is at heart little more than the familiar trope of the misunderstood monster, who sacrificed life and limb to rescue (the ideal of) an innocent child from the daily hell of the prison in which he languished. (In a flashback scene to this episode, furthermore, the camera adopts the point of view of the child – revealed to be none other than Miranda Tate/Talia Al-Ghul – looking down upon her savior as he is overwhelmed by a swarm of prisoners who were ostensibly seeking to violate the little girl.) If in the final analysis our sympathy for, if not identification with, the devil is elicited all - around in The Dark Knight Rises, who is ultimately the “bad guy” in Nolan’s DKR – the point of torsion which the films imaginary and ideological structure forecloses as a position of spectatorial sympathy? The answer, at first glance, seems simple: the people.
- Robert St. Clair, "The Bomb in (and the Right to) the City: Batman, Argo, and Hollywood’s Revolutionary Crowds"

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Thought Crime in America...vs...

Koran-burning Florida Pastor Terry Jones arrested in latest attempt at sacrilege

from the NY Daily News
The whacko minister was caught with a truckload of kerosene-soaked copies of the Muslim holy book — 2,998 for each 9/11 victim.

Inflammatory Pastor Terry Jones has tried again, and failed, to burn Korans, authorities say.

The whack-job pastor from Gainesville, Fla., was arrested Wednesday in the Polk County town of Mulberry with with a truckful of kerosene-soaked copies of the Muslim holy book, cops said. Police found 2,998 Korans — one for every 9/11 victim.

Cops said they cuffed Jones and his associate pastor, Marvin Sapp, around 5 p.m., as the men were about to start the blaze. Each faces a felony charge of unlawful conveyance of fuel. Jones was also charged with unlawful open-carry of a firearm
.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan...

from the BBC
A mob in Afghanistan's capital Kabul has lynched a woman after she allegedly burned a copy of the Koran near a mosque, police say.

Local police commander Saleh Mohammad told the BBC she was killed when "hundreds of locals and passersby attacked her with stones and sticks".

Witnesses say her body was then set on fire. Four suspects have been arrested but the woman has not been identified.

The killing is thought to be the first incident of its kind in Afghanistan.

However, correspondents say it is fairly common in neighbouring Pakistan.

One eyewitness told the BBC how the lynching was carried out near the Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque and shrine.

"I heard noise, I went and people said that a woman is burning Koran. When I went closer I saw angry people shouting they want to kill the woman.

"They beat her to death and then threw her on the river side and burned her. Firefighters later came and put out the fire and took the body."

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said officials were not sure exactly what caused the incident.

Afghan's Tolo news agency said quoted the parents of the woman, named only as Farkhunda, as saying she had suffered from a mental illness for 16 years.

The parents, who were not named, told Tolo she had not intentionally burnt the Koran.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beshrew the Witch!

O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason.
- Wm. Shakespeare, "Troilus and Cressida"

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Greeks Perform the Dance of Zalongo for Europe

The unexpectedly strong No in the Greek referendum was a historical vote, cast in a desperate situation. In my work I often use the well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union about Rabinovitch, a Jew who wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: “There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us, Jews – there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms . . .”

“But,” the bureaucrat interrupts him, “this is pure nonsense. Nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!”

“Well,” responds Rabinovitch calmly, “that’s my second reason.”

I was informed that a new version of this joke is now circulating in Athens. A young Greek man visits the Australian consulate in Athens and asks for a work visa. “Why do you want to leave Greece?” asks the official.

“For two reasons,” replies the Greek. “First, I am worried that Greece will leave the EU, which will lead to new poverty and chaos in the country . . .”

“But,” interrupts the official, “this is pure nonsense: Greece will remain in the EU and submit to financial discipline!”

“Well,” responds the Greek calmly, “this is my second reason.”

Are then both choices worse, to paraphrase Stalin?

The moment has come to move beyond the irrelevant debates about the possible mistakes and misjudgments of the Greek government. The stakes are now much too high.

That a compromise formula always eludes in the last moment in the ongoing negotiations between Greece and the EU administrators is in itself deeply symptomatic, since it doesn’t really concern actual financial issues – at this level, the difference is minimal. The EU usually accuse Greeks of talking only in general terms, making vague promises without specific details, while Greeks accuse the EU of trying to control even the tiniest details and imposing on Greece conditions that are more harsh than those imposed on the previous government. But what lurks behind these reproaches is another, much deeper conflict. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, recently remarked that if he were to meet alone with Angela Merkel for dinner, they would have found a formula in two hours. His point was that he and Merkel, the two politicians, would treat the disagreement as a political one, in contrast to technocratic administrators such as the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. If there is an emblematic bad guy in this whole story, it is Dijsselbloem whose motto is: “If I get into the ideological side of things, I won’t achieve anything.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter: Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister who resigned on 6 July, talk as if they are part of an open political process where decisions are ultimately “ideological” (based on normative preferences), while the EU technocrats talk as if it is all a matter of detailed regulatory measures. When the Greeks reject this approach and raise more fundamental political issues, they are accused of lying, of avoiding concrete solutions, and so on. And it is clear that the truth here is on the Greek side: the denial of “the ideological side” advocated by Dijsselbloem is ideology at its purest. It masks (falsely presents) as purely expert regulatory measures that are effectively grounded in politico-ideological decisions.

On account of this asymmetry, the “dialogue” between Tsipras or Varoufakis and their EU partners often appears as a dialogue between a young student who wants a serious debate on basic issues, and an arrogant professor who, in his answers, humiliatingly ignores the issue and scolds the student with technical points (“You didn’t formulate that correctly! You didn’t take into account that regulation!”). Or even as a dialogue between a rape victim who desperately reports on what happened to her and a policeman who continuously interrupts her with requests for administrative details. This passage from politics proper to neutral expert administration characterises our entire political process: strategic decisions based on power are more and more masked as administrative regulations based on neutral expert knowledge, and they are more and more negotiated in secrecy and enforced without democratic consultation. The struggle that goes on is the struggle for the European economic and political Leitkultur (the guiding culture). The EU powers stand for the technocratic status quo that has kept Europe in inertia for decades.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T S Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, ie, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is our position today with regard to Europe: only a new “heresy” (represented at this moment by Syriza) can save what is worth saving in European legacy: democracy, trust in people, egalitarian solidarity. The Europe that will win if Syriza is outmaneuvered is a “Europe with Asian values” (which, of course, has nothing to do with Asia, but all with the clear and present tendency of contemporary capitalism to suspend democracy).

***

In western Europe we like to look on Greece as if we are detached observers who follow with compassion and sympathy the plight of the impoverished nation. Such a comfortable standpoint relies on a fateful illusion – what has been happening in Greece these last weeks concerns all of us; it is the future of Europe that is at stake. So when we read about Greece, we should always bear in mind that, as the old saying goes, de te fabula narrator (the name changed, the story applies to you).

An ideal is gradually emerging from the European establishment’s reaction to the Greek referendum, the ideal best rendered by the headline of a recent Gideon Rachman column in the Financial Times: “Eurozone’s weakest link is the voters.”

In this ideal world, Europe gets rid of this “weakest link” and experts gain the power to directly impose necessary economic measures – if elections take place at all, their function is just to confirm the consensus of experts. The problem is that this policy of experts is based on a fiction, the fiction of “extend and pretend” (extending the payback period, but pretending that all debts will eventually be paid).

Why is the fiction so stubborn? It is not only that this fiction makes debt extension more acceptable to German voters; it is also not only that the write-off of the Greek debt may trigger similar demands from Portugal, Ireland, Spain. It is that those in power do not really want the debt fully repaid. The debt providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Their pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls “superego”: the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty.

Imagine a vicious teacher who gives to his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. The true goal of lending money to the debtor is not to get the debt reimbursed with a profit, but the indefinite continuation of the debt that keeps the debtor in permanent dependency and subordination. For most of the debtors, for there are debtors and debtors. Not only Greece but also the US will not be able even theoretically to repay its debt, as it is now publicly recognised. So there are debtors who can blackmail their creditors because they cannot be allowed to fail (big banks), debtors who can control the conditions of their repayment (US government), and, finally, debtors who can be pushed around and humiliated (Greece).

The debt providers and caretakers of debt basically accuse the Syriza government of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. That’s what is so disturbing for the EU establishment about the Syriza government: that it admits debt, but without guilt. They got rid of the superego pressure. Varoufakis personified this stance in his dealings with Brussels: he fully acknowledged the weight of the debt, and he argued quite rationally that, since the EU policy obviously didn’t work, another option should be found.

Paradoxically, the point Varoufakis and Tsipras are making repeatedly is that the Syriza government is the only chance for the debt providers to get at least part of their money back. Varoufakis himself wonders about the enigma of why banks were pouring money into Greece and collaborating with a clientelist state while knowing very well how things stood – Greece would never have got so heavily indebted without the connivance of the western establishment. The Syriza government is well aware that the main threat does not come from Brussels – it resides in Greece itself, a clientelist corrupted state if there ever was one. What the EU bureaucracy should be blamed for is that, while it criticized Greece for its corruption and inefficiency, it supported the very political force (the New Democracy party) that embodied this corruption and inefficiency.

The Syriza government aims precisely at breaking this deadlock – see Varoufakis’s programmatic declaration (published in the Guardian) which renders the ultimate strategic goal of the Syriza government:

A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone. I, for one, am not prepared to blow fresh wind into the sails of this postmodern version of the 1930s. If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis.

The financial politics of the Syriza government followed closely these guidelines: no deficit, tight discipline, more money raised through taxes. Some German media recently characterised Varoufakis as a psychotic who lives in his own universe different from ours – but is he so radical?

What is so enervating about Varoufakis is not his radicalism but his rational pragmatic modesty – if one looks closely at the proposals offered by Syriza, one cannot help noticing that they were once part of the standard moderate social democratic agenda (in Sweden of the 1960s, the programme of the government was much more radical). It is a sad sign of our times that today you have to belong to a “radical” left to advocate these same measures – a sign of dark times but also a chance for the left to occupy the space which, decades ago, was that of moderate centre left.

But, perhaps, the endlessly repeated point about how modest Syriza’s politics are, just good old social democracy, somehow misses its target – as if, if we repeat it often enough, the eurocrats will finally realise we’re not really dangerous and will help us. Syriza effectively is dangerous, it does pose a threat to the present orientation of the EU – today’s global capitalism cannot afford a return to the old welfare state.

So there is something hypocritical in the reassurances of the modesty of what Syriza wants: it effectively wants something that is not possible within the coordinates of the existing global system. A serious strategic choice will have to be made: what if the moment has come to drop the mask of modesty and openly advocate a much more radical change that is needed to secure even a modest gain?

Many critics of the Greek referendum claimed that it was a case of pure demagogic posturing, mockingly pointing out that it was not clear what the referendum was about. If anything, the referendum was not about the euro or drachma, about Greece in EU or outside it: the Greek government repeatedly emphasised its desire to remain in the EU and in the eurozone. Again, the critics automatically translated the key political question raised by the referendum into an administrative decision about particular economic measures.

***

In an interview with Bloomberg on 2 July, Varoufakis made clear the true stakes of the referendum. The choice was between the continuation of the EU politics of the last years that brought Greece to the edge of ruin – the fiction of “extend and pretend” (extending the payback period, but pretending that all debts will eventually be paid) – and a new realist beginning that would no longer rely on such fictions, and would provide a concrete plan about how to start the actual recovery of the Greek economy.

Without such a plan, the crisis would just reproduce itself again and again. On the same day, even the IMF conceded that Greece needs a large-scale debt relief to create “a breathing space” and get the economy moving (it proposes a 20-year moratorium on debt payments).

The No in the Greek referendum was thus much more than a simple choice between two different approaches to economic crisis. The Greek people have heroically resisted the despicable campaign of fear that mobilised the lowest instincts of self-preservation. They have seen through the brutal manipulation of their opponents who falsely presented the referendum as a choice between euro and drachma, between Greece in Europe and “Grexit”.

Their No was a No to the eurocrats who prove daily that they are unable to drag Europe out of its inertia. It was a No to the continuation of business as usual; a desperate cry telling us all that things cannot go on the usual way. It was a decision for authentic political vision against the strange combination of cold technocracy and hot racist clichés about the lazy, free-spending Greeks. It was a rare victory of principles against egotist and ultimately self-destructive opportunism. The No that won was a Yes to full awareness of the crisis in Europe; a Yes to the need to enact a new beginning.

It is now up to the EU to act. Will it be able to awaken from its self-satisfied inertia and understand the sign of hope delivered by the Greek people? Or will it unleash its wrath on Greece in order to be able to continue its dogmatic dream?
Slavoj Žižek, "on Greece: This is a chance for Europe to awaken"