Sunday, October 24, 2021

Here Squiddy, Squiddy, Squiddy...

A Squid and a Marine are in the bathroom peeing in the urinal, the Squid washes his hands and says smugly - "in the Navy they teach us to wash our hands after peeing."  The Marine looks at him and says. "in the Marines they teach us not to pee on our hands."
Matt Bennett, "Why Squid Game is actually a critique of meritocracy"
Squid Game, Netflix’s latest runaway success has set new records for views and generated a flurry of comment pieces, memes and moral panic about screen violence.

The programme follows 456 competitors through a series of lethal contests. At stake is a cash prize of billions of won, suspended over the contestants’ dormitory in a giant perspex piggy bank. The people playing the games are destitute and laden with debt. Some are suffering from gambling addictions, others are caught up in gang violence and some face the threat of deportation. This desperation drives them to risk their lives to win the fortune dangling over their heads.

Squid Game no doubt functions as a satire of material inequality in South Korea. The problem has reached a point where relatively radical policies are being considered by candidates for the country’s 2022 presidential election, including universal basic income and a comprehensive overhaul of the legal system.

But though Squid Game’s social critique most obviously aims at extreme inequality, its satire is most effective when it targets a principle that has served to support, justify, and perpetuate such inequality. Squid Game is perhaps at its best when viewed as a critique of meritocracy.

Meritocracy’s promise

Meritocracy is having something of a moment as a subject of debate. A significant number of recent critical studies by sociologists, economists, and philosophers have focused on the role meritocracy plays in legitimising the levels of inequality we face today.

We have been sold the idea that a meritocratic society would be a place where our material wellbeing is determined not by class, race or gender, but by a combination of our ability and effort. Meritocrats believe in fair social competition, a level playing field, and rewards for those talented and industrious enough to rise up the social ladder.

But in a competitive society, not everyone can win. The dark side of meritocracy is that it justifies inequality on the grounds that the better-off have earned their position, with the implication that the worse off also deserve their lot. And when people are convinced that their society is indeed meritocratic, political resistance to inequality is much more difficult to establish.

Political promises of meritocracy peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, and have diminished since the 2008 financial crisis, along with the economic optimism that helped to make meritocracy plausible. Meritocracy nonetheless continues to haunt contemporary politics. Just last year, for example, Kamala Harris’s vice-presidential campaign included the assurance that everyone can “be on equal footing and compete on equal footing”. And some data indicates that a growing proportion of the public continues to believe that they live in a meritocracy.

The problem with past promises of meritocracy is that they have turned out to be either false, because we never really get meritocracy, or empty, because meritocracy doesn’t really give us what we hope for. Squid Game exposes both sides of this unhappy either/or.

The unfairness of false meritocracy

At the heart of Squid Game’s competition is a moral code that, according to the shadowy figure running the game, offers the contestants an opportunity unavailable outside of the game. In his (translated) words: “These people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we offer them one last chance to fight on equal footing and win”.

Unsurprisingly, the reality of Squid Game’s competition falls short of its meritocratic ideal. The hope of a level playing field is undermined by the same social factors that corrupt competitive society outside of the game. Factions form; women are shunned; elderly players are abandoned.

A scene from Squid Game in which one character holds up another to prevent him from falling, losing the game and thereby being shot.
The game’s only player from outside of Korea, Ali Abdul, is patronised, betrayed, and exploited. In the first game, he literally holds up Seong Gi-hun, the programme’s protagonist, in a stunning visual metaphor for the dependence of prosperity in developed countries on cheap foreign labour.

Not everyone has a fair chance of winning.

The violence of true meritocracy

But is the injustice in Squid Game really that the competition is unfair? Would the horror disappear if the competitors really were “on equal footing”?

Squid Game could be perfectly meritocratic and at the same time perfectly perverse. This is a winner-takes-all competition, where only a tiny fraction of players will rise to fortune, and where negligible differences in performance can make the difference between success and failure, and with it the difference between life and death.

Compare this with the polarised labour markets of countries like the US, where middle-income jobs have been replaced by a small number of high-earning roles for winners, and increasingly poorly-paid jobs for those left behind. In reality, even societies that have embraced genuine meritocracy such as the US have nonetheless generated few opportunities to win, while losing leaves tens of millions in poverty.

Squid Game is also a competition in which society’s poorest are forced into playing. Though the rules of the game allow players to opt-out at any time – they even allow for a democratic vote about whether to continue – the misery that awaits them outside of the game makes this no real choice at all.

Winner takes all, losers die, and participants have no choice but to play. Squid Game’s radical meritocracy is a caricatured version of the inequalities that have emerged in competitive society. But it also reflects, in only an exaggerated form, the dangers of both the false and the true meritocracies that currently trap millions.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Fake News

The more things change, the more they stay the same (history repeats...Vietnam->Afghanistan

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Zizek Interview


The following interview between Slavoj Žižek and Leonardo Caffo was recently published in the Italian magazine Sette—the weekly supplement of the daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. It has been translated for Public Seminar by Thomas Winn.

Slavoj Žižek is one of a few living philosophers whose ideas have been translated into more than sixty languages. His thought remains decisively important for contemporary philosophy, bringing with it implications which stretch far and wide across art, literature, science, and politics. His worldwide fame is backed up by the longevity of decades of research.

In his rereading of Marx, Freud, Hegel, and Lacan, Žižek has built up a monumental collection of work. Films, musical works, and documentaries have been published, that, together with his thought, attempt to delineate and sketch out what it means to be human today. The greatest challenges appearin the not-so-distant future, including how to question capital without destroying capitalism, or, as with his latest book Hegel in a Wired Brain [Italian version: Hegel e il cervello postumano (Ponte alle Grazie)], pose the question of what happens in the event of human Singularity, the moment when (potentially) our brains become digitally interconnected.

Leonardo Caffo [LC]: In your opinion, how healthy is contemporary philosophy, and what state is it in?

Slavoj ŽižeK [SZ]: Let us say that philosophy is contested between two very classic versions of “the end of philosophy.” One, being the most obvious, is that which tends to resolve its greatest questions of meaning with a kind of extreme scientism: the cognitive sciences, neuro-philosophies, and a quantum mechanics which is not even fully understood but is used to solve every dilemma of the spirit. And then, on the other side, we find a historicism which tends to secularize all conceptual questions. In part, philosophy’s unhealthiness is also connected to silly infighting in academia, the false and nonsensical division between continental philosophy and analytical philosophy (when in fact there is only good or bad philosophy), and a broader difficulty to make people see how philosophy’s greatest questions of meaning, questions of sense, are crucial if we are to understand the gigantic epochal transformations which are well underway—epidemics, climate change, and political and economic earthquakes. It is a paradoxically interesting moment for philosophy. “The end of philosophy” has always been given lip service, and yet it is precisely today that we ought to be that much more capable of pointing out the philosophical knots that crucially intertwine with what is going on today.

This is also what you do with your latest book on Hegel, where you tell us something about the future of human subjectivity after the supposed interconnection of our brains with increasingly pervasive technological implants.

SZ: Yes, but the point is that it does not even matter if all these great prophesies concerning our interconnected brains actually take place. What interests me is what would happen if it does. How would our conception of the unconscious change, if, for example, we really could communicate with others directly through our mind? Or, what would remain of sex as we know it if we could directly interconnect our enjoyment without physical effort? These are indeed posthuman scenarios, but they do not concern the technical features of what being posthuman will look like, well not as such. I am simply asking myself: what will remain of humanity if, through technology, everything that constitutes a human is lost? This is an intrinsically philosophical question which is irresolvable by science or history. It is a question which demonstrates the value of our work today to the degree that we manage to avoid entrenching ourselves into obscure philosophical systematizations—like what we are seeing with those great returns to realism and abstract metaphysics, and not to mention, what we are also seeing with the exclusionary aseptic questions of those analytical philosophies that do not dare to immerse themselves into what is actually going on out there.

LC: Are you referring to philosophers such as Graham Harman or Markus Gabriel (with whom I have also spoken to in this newspaper)?

SZ: Yes, of course. Both Harman and Gabriel do a great job with those general questions that concern philosophy. Yet if these questions—of what reality means, what freedom means, what objectivity means—are not immersed into the urgency of a world bent backwards by a virus and digitalization, then there is a real risk of leaving the philosophical terrain open to various forms of skepticism. I think that would be a pretty serious error which can easily be avoided. In Italy, you have great philosophers who are celebrated all over the world; think of Giorgio Agamben, with whom however, I have not shared his approach to Covid, as it lays too close to those easy reactionary conspiracy theories (like: “the green pass limits our freedom. . .” as if dying from Covid has not limited it that much more), or Gianni Vattimo, who is a great friend and with whom in Turin I have often spoken about our differences from the present formation of Marxist thought.

LC: But has Agamben not also immersed his philosophy into our current situation, using it to resolve such matters in the same way as you have just suggested before?

SZ: Of course, but seeking to use those theoretical tools that he is fond of (in his case, using Michel Foucault’s biopolitics) is a clumsy way to thrust philosophy into the present, as these specific tools do not resolve newer and more complex questions. It is obviously clear that when abstracted, limiting the freedom of a population through prohibitive health regulations is a serious thing to contend with, but, in practice, given that the world which has produced this virus has in the first place been formed from far more serious atrocities, what are we meant to do? Agamben has only reasoned with the consequences of Covid. I think that philosophy should primarily be concerned with its roots.

LC: What then is to be said about anthropocentrism, even if it is, perhaps, a reductive term?

SZ: I do not share in the kind of extreme victim mentality played out by some ecological philosophies: “We are all equal to every other living thing, we must all stop operating in an anthropocentric way.” What is required from us in this moment is, paradoxically, a kind of super-anthropocentrism: we should control nature, control our environment; we should allow for a reciprocal relationship to exist between the countryside and cities; we should use technology to stop desertification or the polluting of the seas. We are, once again, responsible for what is happening, and so we are also the solution. The theme underlying my book on Hegel is that contemporary philosophy should have a proper Hegelian attitude when faced with issues such as working with dialectics. We are being called to not propose simple solutions, to not play the victim, to not be foolishly accusatory (i.e., “the evil West”), and to not take on those almost well-rounded conspiracy theories.

LC: You also take this complex position towards issues such as racism, sexism, political correctness. . .

SZ: Obviously. Thinking that things can be resolved with “everyone is the same, everyone is a friend, a brother, a sister; let us use a nice neutral language” is nonsensical. In the end, it causes more harm than good. The issue of gender cannot only be a matter of ethics, so also the issue of racism. The point is not the banal task of respecting each other in an abstract way. Instead, it is a question of how we ought to bring together differing moralities and cultures and those unsettling monstrosities that we find in ourselves in the encounter with a stranger, and it is also the question of why it is that we can criticize Europe as much as we want with the flag of anticolonialism, as Europe is the only philosophical construction in which there are possibilities for an advanced ethics or a critical thought, which were given life a millennia ago with Thales. Political correctness which reacts to things by canceling them will impoverish a kind of thinking which necessarily passes through contradictions and leaps to ideas which are often rotten and politically incorrect themselves. What would happen to my politically incorrect anecdotes from European or American cinema (and to those readers who are used to them)?

LC: Do universities and academia in general help towards perceiving philosophy as that which can immerse itself in the pressing issues of today, and perhaps resolve them?

SZ: No. Above all in the south of Europe, of which I think you know all too well, universities are prepossessed on defending a kind of partition of positions, in keeping power, on giving positions to their often shoddy students, and, in the end, being unwilling to generate a type of philosophy which is able to be perceived as both deep and interventionalist. There is no difference between philosophical research and philosophical intervention, except for those who do the first without knowing how to do the second—who then provide silly, unfounded academic excuses.

LC: The risk, then, that a scientific vision could replace our conceptual ability is a concrete one, as you claim in your book.

SZ: The risk is concrete, actual, but ready to be circumvented by trying to explain why, for example, in view of our potentially interconnected brains (the topic that I confront in this most recent work of mine) the question of its probable technological potentiality is overshadowed by the question of how our species will change. Therefore, in some way, it is also a question involving potential tragedy (again, in respect to you and your work on the posthuman, I am a lot more critical of what this will mean for human subjectivity). We need to restore robust hermeneutical horizons, to demonstrate how most things in the future will not depend purely on an acceptance of data and scientific discoveries, but on our own capability to know how to interpret and manage their effects, looking to understand what is really at stake. We are free to make all of the proclamations that we want about the return to what is real in philosophy, but if then we do not confront actual ongoing conditions then we are condemning philosophy to its own disappearance, which will not be pleasant for anyone. There is a strictly concrete need for a type of thinking which can think both transcendentally and be translated quickly in to actual political, artistic, and technical visions.

LC: Is there space for a philosophy like this?

SZ: There is plenty of space. But we must defend—and in repeating this, I am probably disappointing many of my follows who side with the radical left—those bastions of critical thought such as Europe, deeply reform the universities, and hermeneutically oversee many of contemporary science’s unquestioned conquests. Doing such requires that we do not reignite the fire of conspiracy theories, hiding their power alongside old philosophical concepts. The task of philosophy then, is to focus on the “how” of things. Having such an approach is complex. It is one which does not want to propose solutions quickly, where “white” can be easily distinguished from “black.” Is the future digital? Not quite—not if digitalization is not compatible with ecology. Is feminism necessary? Of course, but if it builds itself up by being politically correct then it will implode. Are we truly antiracist? In theory yes, but when we find ourselves passing under houses in a neighborhood where there are different cultures and differing moral compasses, we risk the possibility of every certainty collapsing. Is anthropocentrism wrong? Not entirely, given that, as I said before, we are now required to adhere to a super-anthropocentrism if we want to save humanity’s existence on planet Earth. Obviously, I am simplifying things, but it helps in letting you understand what I mean when I speak about the task of contemporary philosophy.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Reconciling the Theft of Enjoyment...


Figured as a thief of enjoyment, the state merely fits into the most common role of the other in the society of enjoyment. In every encounter with the other, I encounter someone or something that seems ready to enjoy at my expense and in my stead. Every interaction is a struggle for enjoyment. Hence, I must take precautions when entering into the social world, guarding myself against the threat that the other represents, This of course militates against civility because civility depends on not viewing the other as fundamentally threatening and on the presumption that both the subject and the other have sacrificed their enjoyment. In the society of enjoyment, civility becomes dangerous. If I act civilly, I risk allowing the other to take my enjoyment from me and expose my lack. However, this is but the beginning of the problem. If viewing the other as a potential thief of any enjoyment has the effect of creating less civil encounters, it has also the ominous effect of producing subjects prone to aggressiveness and violence, and we can see this tendency throughout the society of commanded enjoyment.
Todd McGowan, "The End of Dissatisfaction?": Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment

Louise Fradenburg, "So that we May Speak of Them": Enjoying the Middle Ages
This essay explores the significance of enjoyment to medieval studies, and to some of the discontents of contemporary literary and cultural studies more generally. What, to begin with, is the nature of the signifying field in which medieval historiography, as a mode of sublimation, takes place? I use the term "sublimation" to refer to the problem addressed by Freud of how the creation of art and other forms of cultural "achievement" may be understood in relation to desire. The movie Babe will help us to an initial sketch of what is at stake in the relation of the signifier to desire and memory.

Babe is, first of all, a film with a recognizably medievalist agenda. It celebrates love between master and servant (these days, animals have to stand in for peasants), and rural life as scene in which such love might be rediscovered. It expresses distaste for technology, focused especially on communications in the form of the Fax machine, but also recuperates the Fax, as well as discipline, training, technique. These figures recall the master tropes of anti-utilitarian medievalism in the nineteenth century. So does the film's insistent association of meaningless speech with commercialism and disbelief in the remarkable, and its association of meaningful speech with Babe's taciturn but loving farmer- a man behind the times who nonetheless is able to succeed because he recognizes the distinctive gifts of his animals, even when they want to do the work of the "other" (even, that is, when the pig Babe wants to do the work of a sheep dog).

An envious feline "thief of enjoyment" at one point explains to Babe that cats, because they are beautiful, need not be useful, and therefore are not eaten. Pigs, on the other hand, are destined to be food, and this was the fate of Babe's family. This information has a severely depressive effect on Babe's desire to work as a sheep dog for his farmer, and to compete on the farmer's behalf in the upcoming sheep-dog trials. There follows a scene in which Babe has to be convinced that his farmer loves him, that his relation to this other is not merely instrumental. Babe is not persuaded by food. Babe is persuaded that he is loved by the other only when the other produces art for him, that is, sings and dances for...

The alternative being..."That damned dog stole ALL my enjoyment..."

Reflections Upon the 'Other'

Slavoj Zizek, "The White Issue: The 'Theft of Enjoyment'" (5/18/93)
“How can one be a white, heterosexual male, and still retain a clear conscience?”

Let us examine a recurrent feature of American ideology: the obsessive idea that there might still be some U.S. prisoners of war alive in Vietnam, leading a miserable existence, forgotten by their own country. Recently this obsession appeared with re­newed force. An American researcher, working in the archives of the Communist party of the former Soviet Union, produced a “secret” document purporting to identify a far greater number of prisoners than had previously been counted. In the 1980s, the missing POWs idea articulated itself in a series of macho film adventures (Rambo II, Missing in Action) in which a hero under­takes a solitary rescue mission. The under­lying fantasy is far more interesting than the films: “Down there,” far away in the Vietnamese jungle, America lost a precious part of itself, the essence of its potency, and this loss became the ultimate cause of America’s decline and “impotence” in the post-Vietnam Jimmy Carter years. To re­trieve this stolen, forgotten part became an aim of the Reagan-esque reaffirmation of a strong United States.

What the secret document case and the Rambo films bear witness to is the strange logic of the “theft of enjoyment” that forms the very kernel of racism. What holds to­gether a given community can never be reduced simply to the point of symbolic national identification: A shared relation­ship toward the other’s enjoyment is always implied. Structured by means of fantasies, this thing — enjoyment — is what is at stake when we speak of the menace to our “way of life” presented by the other. It, and not the set of so-called white/Christian values that supposedly offer support to U.S. na­tional identity, is what is threatened when white Americans panic because of the grow­ing presence of “aliens,” or when people in another country are scorned for taking away “American” jobs.

National and racial identities are deter­mined by a series of contradictory proper­ties. They appear to us as “our thing” (per­haps we could say cosa nostra), as something accessible only to us, as some­thing “they,” the others, cannot grasp; nonetheless, “our thing” is something con­stantly menaced by “them.”

This thing gives plenitude and vivacity to our life, and yet the only way we can define it is by resorting to different versions of the same empty tautology: that the thing is “it­self,” “the real thing,” “what it is really about.” If we are asked how we can recog­nize the presence of this thing, the only consistent answer is that it is present in that elusive entity called “our way of life.” All we can do is enumerate disconnected frag­ments of the way our community organizes its feasts, its rituals of mating, its initiation ceremonies… in short, all the details of the unique way in which our community arranges its enjoyment.

The way these fragments persist across ethnic barriers can sometimes be quite af­fecting. When Robert Mugabe was asked by a journalist to name the most precious lega­cy of British colonialism in Zimbabwe, he answered without hesitation: “Cricket” — a senselessly ritualized game, almost beyond the grasp of those outside the British Com­monwealth, in which the prescribed ges­tures (the way to throw the ball, for example) appear grotesquely “dysfunctional.”

We always impute to the other an exces­sive enjoyment. He or she seems to have access to some secret, perverse stimulant. What really bothers us about “others” is the smell of “their” food, “their” noisy songs and dances, “their” strange manners. A surplus pertains to each of them. In racist ideology, a second kind of distortion also appears to deform the other: namely, “their” attitude toward work. To the racist, the other is either a workaholic stealing “our” jobs or an idler living on our labor; and it is quite amusing to notice the haste with which one passes from reproaching others with a refusal to work to reproaching them for the theft of work.

In today’s United States, the role of the “thief of enjoyment” is played more and more by the Japanese. Witness the Ameri­can media’s obsession with the idea that Japanese people don’t know how to enjoy themselves. Japan’s growing economic su­periority over the United States is ex­plained by the somewhat mysterious fact that the Japanese don’t consume enough; therefore, they accumulate too much wealth. What America reproaches the Japa­nese for is not simply their inability to take pleasure, but rather that their very relation­ship between work and enjoyment is strangely twisted. It is as though they find enjoyment in their very renunciation of plea­sure, in their zeal, in their inability to “take it easy.”

At the end of this obsessive line of thought is the idea that the only thing that might relieve American fear of Japan is if Japanese people somehow unlearned their ways. Thus the American media report with such evident relief how Japanese are finally learning to consume. And U.S. tele­vision depicts with self-satisfaction how Japanese tourists stare at the wonders of the American pleasure industry. Finally, they are “becoming like us,” learning our way of enjoying…

The logic of the “theft of enjoyment” is by no means limited to reigning “white” ideology. It also lays a fatal trap for those sexual and ethnic minorities who, in a quite justified way, refuse simple integration into the liberal democracy. When, for example, the Nation of Islam advocated African American (cultural, po­litical, economic) self-sufficiency, the un­derlying idea was that, were it not for the white intruders stealing their substance, Af­rican Americans would be able to live as a self-enclosed, harmonious, organic community. It is by no means accidental that this attitude of apartheid was closely linked to the resurgence of anti-Semitism among African Americans.

While Malcolm X might appear to be the clearest example of this point of view, on closer look, his activity bears witness to a far more refined strategy. Recall Malcolm’s notorious answer to the young white liberal who asked him what she could do for the African American cause: “Nothing.” The remark was not a simple refusal of help. The point was rather different: Only by acknowledging that, ultimately, they can do nothing, that the emancipation of African Americans must be their own deed, only by renouncing the false self-blame of whites, which conceals its exact opposite, patronizing arrogance, can whites actually do something for African American emancipation.

We must be particularly attentive to the difference between the “postmodern” racism which now raged around Europe and racism in its traditional form. The old racism was direct and raw: “they” (Jews, blacks, Arabs, Eastern Europeans, etc.) are lazy, violent, plotting, eroding our national substance. The new racism is “reflective,” self-conscious; indeed, it can well assume the form of its opposite, the fight against racism.

For example, how does a “postmodern” racist react to the anti-immigrant outbursts in Germany? Of course, he or she begins by expressing horror and repulsion at the neo-Nazi violence, yet is quick to add that these events, deplorable as they are, must be seen in their context. It seems the events are actually a distorted expression and effect of a true problem, namely, that in contemporary Babylon, the experience of belonging to a well-defined ethnic community that gives meaning to an individual’s life is losing ground. In short, the true culprits are cosmopolite universalists who, in the name of “multiculturalism,” mix races, and thereby set in motion natural self-defense mechanisms. Germany would be a better place without these problems; therefore, it would be best for the immigrants to keep to themselves, or failing that, leave the country. Apartheid is thus legitimized as the ultimate form of antiracism, as a way to prevent racial tensions and conflicts.

Western liberal intellectuals are often caught in a similar, although inverse, trap, in which they believe that to affirm their own indigenous ethnicities is to celebrate a redneck horror, a site of populist proto-fascism. In the United State, the “backward” Polish or Italian communities, with their alleged brood of “authoritarian personalities,” serve as liberal scarecrows, whereas center-left intellectuals hail the autochthonous ethnic communities of the other (communities of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, etc., which may have lurking within them the same kinds of “authoritarianism”). White liberals thus celebrate the political patterns and forms of enjoyment that bond together these other communities, while denouncing their own. Enjoyment is good, on condition that it remain the other’s enjoyment.

The positive expression of this ambivalence is the obsessive attitude that one can easily detect in political correctness: the compulsive effort to uncover ever-new, ever more refined forms of racial and/or sexual violence and domination. (It’s not p.c. to say that the president “smokes a peace pipe,” for instance, since this involves a patronizing attitude toward Native Americans.) The problem here is simply “How can one be a white, heterosexual male, and still retain a clear conscience?” All other positions can affirm their specificity, their particular mode of enjoyment; only the white male heterosexual position must remain empty, must sacrifice its enjoyment.

The weak point of the p.c. attitude is not that it is too severe, too fanatic, but that it is not severe enough. At first glance, the p.c. attitude appears to involve extreme self-sacrifice, an unending effort to unearth traces of sexism and racism in oneself, an effort not unworthy of the early Christian saint who dedicated his life to discovering in himself ever new layers of sin.

Yet all this effort should not dupe us, as it is ultimately a stratagem to conceal the fact that the p.c. type is not ready to renounce what really matters. “I’m prepared to sacrifice everything but that.” But what? The very gesture of self-sacrifice.

In the very act of emptying the white-male-heterosexual position of all positive content, the p.c. attitude retains it as a universal form of subjectivity. What the p.c. attitude really fears is that the problem itself will disappear, i.e., that the white-male-heterosexual point of view will cease to exert its hegemony. The guilt displayed by the p.c. attitude, the apparent desire to get rid of “incorrect” elements, is therefore actually its exact opposite: it bears witness to the inflexible will to hold on to the white-male-heterosexual position.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Thiefs of the Left's Enjoyment...

In psychoanalysis, the thieves if enjoyment have basically two shapes.  One is the mythical "primordial father" who enjoys everything (all the tribe's females) and castrates everybody else (all the tribe's males): and the other is the doublegaenger who does the same.  The doublegaenger is that other ego who has access to enjoyment, takes away your enjoyment, and enjoys in your place: thus the doublegaenger is the prominent figure of the thief of enjoyment in Freud's theory, in his essay "The Uncanny".

- Zizek, et al, "Parallax: The Dialectics of Mind and World


Roshan De Silva Wijeyeratne, "Citizenship law, nationalism and the theft of enjoyment: a post-colonial narrative"
But that which institutes the dynamic of the 'theft of enjoyment' is not the actual reality that the Indian Tamil "other" happens to live in the predominantly Sinhalese province of Kandy, 'but the inner antagonism inherent' (Zizek 1993: 205, his emphasis) in ·the 'Sinhala nation' itself, (which remains both explicit and implicit in these debates on citizenship), by which the perception of the other is 'mediated by a symbolic-ideological structure which tries to cope with social antagonism) (Zizek 1993: 205). As such, 'the real "secret (ibid) of the Indian Tamil is the antagonism inherent to the 'Sinhala nation' itself: its inability to achieve authenticity. It is through this process of displacement 'that desire is constituted' (Zizek 1993: 206, his emphasis). It is through the discourse on citizenship and its attendant legislation, the purpose of which is to 'restore' the land back to the Kandyan peasantry (Hansard House of Representatives (1948) Vol IV: Col 451-55), that the Sinhalese (by transposing the inherent social antagonism of the 'Sinhala nation onto the other) constitute the 'fantasy-organisation of desire' (Zizek 1993: 2(6) through the narrative of(deprivation', the 'theft of enjoyment'.

As Zizek observes such a narrative exemplifies that 'enjoyment is ultimately always enjoyment of the Other, ie. enjoyment supposed, imputed to the Other, and that, conversely, the hatred of the Other's enjoyment is always the hatred of one's own enjoyment' (Zizek 1993: 206). Such fantasies of the Indian Tamil other's form of 'excessive enjoyment (Zizek 1993: 206), such as his/her 'special relationship' (Zizek f993: 206) to work or to the land is a means by which the Sinhalese 'organise [their] own enjoyment' (Zizek 1993: 206, my interpolation). The other 'gives a body' (ibid) to the inherent social antagonism of the 'Sinhala nation' itself and in doing so prevents the nation from achieving a full identity with itself (Zizek 1993: 206). What we encounter then in the articulation of the Indian Tamil other as a 'thief of enjoyment' is the Real, that traumatic moment in which the Symbolic order of the 'Sinhala nation' fails (Zizek 199: 20B11), in a manner analogous to the failure of .language to ever attain pure signification.

The narrative of 'theft' is the means by which the Sinhalese organise their 'enjoyment'. But the role of 'enjoyment' is that it gives effect to the structuration of Sinhalese 'desire around some traumatic element that cannot be symbolised' (Saled 1994: 15), the nation-Thing, around which 'reality' is constituted. This is a 'reality' determined by fantasy. As Seled observes '[s)ocial reality is always traversed by some fundamental impossibility, by an 'antagonism' which prevents reality from being fully symbolised' (Saled 1994: 15). She continues that'[it] is fantasy that attempts to symbolise or otherwise fill out this empty place of social reality. Fantasy thus functions as a scenario that conceals the ultimate inconsistency of society' (Saled 1994: 15).

But what the citizenship legislation and the debates surrounding this legislation demand is a 'stable and clearly defined social body' (Zizek 1993: 211), one that cuts 'off the 'excessive' element' (ibid) and restores the 'Sinhala nation' to harmony. But this demand is destined to fail for what it displaces is the antagonism that is inherent to the 'Sinhala nation itself (Zizek 1993: 210). What the Indian Tamil other displaces is the (im)possibility of symbolising the (Sinhala nation). The nation hence occupies the place of the Real, in that the nation 'is an element in us that is 'more than our selves', something that defines us, but is at the same time always undefinable' (Saled 1994: 15). Citizenship is one means by which the ~empty place of the nation in the symbolic structure of society' (Salecl 1994: 15) is filled out. As such Ceylon citizenship is organised around fantasy and is a means by which the Sinhalese Buddhist nation can perceive 'itself as a homogeneous entity' (Salecl1994: 15).

Such an analysis reveals that the construction of citizenship legislation in Sri Lanka as a discursive process functions by virtue of its (fantasy-support' (Zizek 1993: 213). To the extent that citizenship constitutes a discourse in which its object(s) are constructed, fantasies organised around the 'deprivation' of land, medical services, and parliamentary representation, constitute a 'limit' that prevents the linguistic signs that make up Ceylon " citizenship from ever achieving a self-referential unity. That which is partially excluded in the affirmation of citizenship remains at the presubjective level of the unconscious (Obeyesekere 1990: 278), but momentarily reveals itself in the 'ambivalence toward the [Indian Tamil] other's fantasmatic enjoyment' (Zizek 1993: 213, my interpolation), an excessive 'enjoyment' which is encompassed within the hierarchical set of criteria established for the granting of citizenship in this legislation.

It follows that the determination of citizenship only succeeds in the paradoxical moment that announces the failure of its universalisation, 'the very moment of its splitting' (Zizek 1993: 222), a moment marked by-the partial separation of the 'inside' - citizenship - from the 'outside' - statelessness (Zizek 1993: 222). The classification of' Ceylon citizenship' operates in a manner that seeks to encompass the 'explosive potential' (Zizek 1993: 222) of the Indian Tamil other 'even if the price to be paid for such containment is the neglect of elementary democratic principles' (Zizek 1993: 222). Consequently, following Hegel, the collective Indian Tamil populace constitute a 'rabble' (cited by Zizek 1993: 224), the inevitable by-product of establishing Ceylon citizenship. As such they constitute a partially integrated 'segment in the legal order, prevented from partaking of its benefits, and for this very reason delivered from any responsibilities toward it- a necessary structural surplus [partially] excluded from the closed circuit of [the] social edifice' (Zizek 1993: 224, my interpolation).


Sri Lanka (or Ceylon until 1972) gained independence from Britain in 1948. The Sinhalese (predominantly Buddhist) comprise 74 percent of the population, the Tamils (predominantly Hindu) comprise 18.2 percent, the Muslims who are the descendants of both Arab traders and Tamil Hindu and possibly Sinhalese Buddhist converts to Islam comprise 7.1 percent, the Burghers (descendants of Portuguese and Dutch settler communities) and Eurasians comprise 0.3 percent, the Malays comprise 0.3 percent and the Veddhas (the indigenous inhabitants of the island) and other ethnic groups comprise 0.2 percent (de Silva 1986: 417)

The debates surrounding the law on citizenship are dominated by the, metaphor of 'deprivation', that is that the Indian Tamil other stole or took away certain privileges once enjoyed by the Sinhalese people and as such is open to an analysis that utilises a psychoanalytical account of nationalism as the 'theft of enjoyment' (Zizek 1991a, 1993).

Pali, a language derived from Sanskrit, is the sacred script of Buddhism. Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka in approximately 250 BCE from North India (Gombrich 1988: 1-3).

Dharmapala was born into a mercantile Buddhist family'" Under the influence of Madame Blavatsky he was introduced to Theosophy and learnt Pali. He adopted the name Dharmapala which means 'Defender of the Buddhist Doctrine'. The reference to 'Anagarika' was an innovation and in Pali it means 'homeless', the classic epithet for a Buddhist monk (Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988: 205-6).

In Ben Anderson's account, nations 'are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined' (Anderson 1991: 6).

As an 'excess' which is always surplus to that which can be actually identified (Bhabha 1994:66-84), the Tamil other succeeds in breaching the boundary and distorting the outline of the Sinhalese Buddhist nation's claimed self-identity (Perrin 1996: 104). The boundary (ie. the external 'limit') of the nation's seIf-identity confronts its 'limit', what it can never fully be as it finds itself tethered to the 'excess' that is the other. This internal 'limit' prevents the Sinhalese nation from achieving a full identity with itself (Zizek 1991b: l02-12). Simultaneous to the failure of a full identity is the ultimate failure of exclusion. Its identity fails through the undecidable relation between the Sinhalese and Tamil other as the other insists upon being 'present'. It is this failure to either exclude or include the other which undermines the coherence of the 'Sinhala nation).

For a detailed analysis of the operation of the Donoughmore Constitution and its impact on Tamil politics and the gradual fragmentation of Sinhala-Tamil relations see Russell (1982).

In addition Russell notes that 'the struggle for leadership within the Sinhalese and Tamil communities themselves caused rifts which inhibited united communal political action.... The centripetal social forces within each community were not powerful enough to counteract the fissi-parative tendencies) (Russell 1982: 334).

As a consequence of the Citizenship Act, the electoral register had to be amended. The Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, 1949 had the effect of removing those Indian Tamil voters who had been disenfranchised of citizenship by the former Act from the electoral register. Not only did this remove a potential source of support for the Left from electoral politics, but in distorting the electoral balance it had the effect of making the 'Sinhalese rural voter the arbiter of the country's politics' (de Silva 1986: 155») as confirmed with the results of the 1956 general election when the forces of Sinhalese Buddhist, nationalism came to power.

Instead the provisions of the Act are outlined in liberal neutral terms.

I am grateful to Colin Perrin for this citation.

The current exchange rate is about 100 Rupees to 1 Pound sterling. It only takes a small leap of imagination to realise how out of reach 2000 Rupees would have been to a plantation labourer 50 years ago.

The Left, the Federal Party (which split from the Tamil Congress owing to the latter's support for the citizenship legislation) and the Ceylon Indian Congress opposed the legislation on the grounds that it was racist, its sole objective being to facilitate communal passions, and the Left added with good reason that it was overtly anti-working class, as a majority of the Indian Tamils had voted for the Left in the 1948 general election (Hansard House of Representatives (1948) Vol V: Col 457-58, 557-58, 578-80).

In fact under the Medical1.%nts Ordinance, Indian labourers were not entitled to free treatment in hospitals opened in the plantation areas and had to pay 30 cents (Hansard House of Representatives (1948) Vol V: Col 533).

This idyllic rural setting, often associated with the pre-colonial past, was organised around the central symbols of the Buddhist temple, the water-tank and the village (Tambiah 1992: 112).

This is not where the story of citizenship legislation in Sri Lanka ends, but my own analysis here is confined "to the 1948-49 period. In 1964 and 1974 agreements were negotiated between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments 'according to which the Sri Lankan government agreed to award citizenship to approximately 46.2 per cent of Indians (and their descendants) living in Sri Lanka in 1948' (de Silva in Goldman & Jeyaratnam Wilson (eds) 1984: 118). The Indian Government 'agreed to accept the others, and by 1980 there were approximately 400,000 Indian Tamils who had gained Sri Lankan citizenship' (de Silva in Goldman & Jeyaratnam Wilson (eds) 1984: 112). Finally in 1986 the Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons Act had the effect of granting citizenship by registration to the remaining 469,000 Indian Tamils.

This reference to the Thing is used in its Lacanian 'sense as a traumatic, real object fixing our desire' (Zizek 1991a: 162), the object filling out the place of 'the trauma as memory' (Forrester 1991: 76). Drawing upon an analogy with Freud, Lyotard observes that 'according to Freud we must dissociate secondary repression (which gives rise to the "formations" of the dream, the symptom ... (and] all the representations of the unconscious on the edges of the conscious scene) from what Lacan called the Thing, and Freud the unconscious affect, which never let themselves be presented' (Lyotard 1991: 33). So primary repression for Freud is analogous to the Lacanian Thing, that which remains inaccessible, but which yet must be filled out through fantasy.

This experience is analogous to that of castration, which for Freud is 'experienced as something that "really cannot happen", but whose prospect nevertheless horrifies us' (Zizek 1991a: 165).

'Enjoyment' (jouissance) 'is not to be equated with pleasure (Lust) ... [for] it designates the paradoxical satisfaction procured by a painful encounter with a Thing that perturbs the equilibrium of the "pleasure principle". In other words, enjoyment is located "beyond the pleasure principle'" (Zizek 1993: 280, n I, my interpolation).

In Lacanian terms the 'Real is a dimension which is always missing, but which at the same time always emerges; this elusive dimension, which society tries to incorporate in the symbolic order and thus neutraJise, always exceeds society's grasp' (Saled 1994: 15). Although the Symbolic order is oriented towards equilibrium 'it can never attain this state because of this alien, traumatic dimension at its core' {Saled 1994: IS}.

Zizek, in this respect, develop~ Jacques-Alain Miller's question '[w]hat is the cause of our hatred of him in his very being? It is hatred of the enjoyment in the Other. This would be the most general formula of the modern racism we are witnessing today: a hatred of the particular way the Other enjoys.... The question of tolerance or intolerance is ... located on the level of tolerance or intolerance toward the enjoyment of the Other, the Other as he who essentially steals my enjoyment ... The problem is apparently unsolvable as the Other is the Other in my interior. The root of racism is thus hatred of my-own enjoyment. There is no other enjoyment but my own. If the Other is in me, occupying the place of extimacy, then the hatred is also my own' (cited by Zizek 1993: 203). .

The 'theft of enjoyment' in this respect follows the logic of paranoia, which consists of the 'externalisation of the function of castration in a positive agency appearing as the "thief of enjoyment))) (Zizek 1993: 281, n 7). Elaborating upon Zizek's argument the paranoia of the 'Sinhala nation' may be said to result from the failure of the 'Sinhala nation' to establish itself as sufficiently Sinhalese Buddhist. This failure, predetermined by the very structure of the Symbolic order "'returns in the real)) in the shape of the Other, the "thief of enjoyment))) (Zizek 1993: 281, n 7).

Post inspired by the Zizek lecture below:

Slavoj Žižek, "The Capitalist Promise & The Paradoxes of Desire"