Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Physician, heal thyself

-Slavoj Zizek, "Trump's barber paradox: Can president Trump pardon himself?"
For 30 years, Donald Trump regularly visited the Paul Molé Barber Shop in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Adrian Wood, the barber who owns the shop, remembers that Trump would instruct barbers precisely where to snip his mane, and would never allow them to expose his bald spot, as revealed by a report in the New York Post: ‘He’s a complete control freak. He dictates exactly how you cut every hair on his head. “Cut here, cut there. That’s enough.” And you just do what he says.’

No wonder that now, when Trump repeatedly evokes the prospect that before leaving office he might pardon himself, the debate throws us back into the self-reference paradoxes discussed for millennia, like the one (falsely attributed to Bertrand Russell) about a barber who shaves only those who do not shave themselves. Does this barber shave himself? If he does, then he obviously violates the rule of shaving only those who do not shave themselves. If he doesn’t, he falls in the category of those who do not shave themselves, so he can shave himself.

What happens if we apply this paradox to Trump — can he pardon himself? Common sense tells us that the President (or any other supreme authority like a monarch) who has the right to pardon those judged and condemned by a court can only pardon those who cannot pardon themselves (if all condemned could pardon themselves, a large majority of them would do so). If he can pardon himself, then he needs pardon, which means he is a common person who violated the law and, as such, cannot pardon himself.

The solution to this paradox is, in Trump’s case, relatively simple: Trump himself, the self-professed protector of Law and Order, perceives himself as standing above the Law. The implication of his claim that he can pardon himself is that he ultimately doesn’t need to be pardoned because what he does is not contained by the Law.

But there is another problem here: the privilege of giving pardon is usually reserved for monarchs or presidents of a state who do not hold executive power, i.e., whose function is, as we say, symbolic and ceremonial. (Hegel clearly saw the necessity of the gap that separates the monarch from executive power.) ‘Totalitarian’ temptation arises when the two levels collapse, i.e., when the nominal head of state also holds executive power. This happens not only in Fascist and Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’ (although, in the case of Italy, Mussolini was not both — Italy remained a monarchy) but is also inscribed into the very constitution of the US, which is unique in that the president is not exempted from executive power. The two functions are united (which is why the US presidents can rule with ‘executive orders’, largely ignoring Congress and Senate). Where does this come from?

Eric Nelson (in The Royalist Revolution) convincingly demonstrates that it was admiration for royal prerogative power and belief in the virtues of a strong executive, both derived from 17th-century precedents, that fostered the rebellion against Britain and shaped the Constitution of the new American republic. The American Revolution came out of a royalist, not a parliamentarian, tradition: first, the ‘Founding Fathers’ hoped that the British king would protect them against the tyranny of the British parliament raising taxes on the American colonies; when this did not happen, they incorporated this image of a monarch with executive powers into their constitution.

This decision of the Founding Fathers has fateful consequences even today: what Obama and Trump share, all their contrasts notwithstanding, is the excessive use of ‘executive orders’. Not that US is really a monarchy but in some sense it is even worse than a constitutional monarchy: a monarchy in which the monarch also has executive power which can limit parliamentary oligarchy.

However, the irony of history teaches us that maybe something good can come out of this danger. Remember how, at the beginning of his presidency, Trump used his executive powers to proclaim a state of national emergency. His critics were shocked at how he applied this measure, clearly intended only for great catastrophes like a threat of war or natural disaster, in order to build a border to protect the US territory from an invented threat. However, not only the Democrats were critical of this measure — some on the right were also alarmed by the fact that Trump’s proclamation sets a dangerous precedent: what if a future leftist-Democratic president will proclaim national emergency on behalf of, say, global warming? My point is that a leftist president should act like this to legitimize fast extraordinary measures — global warming effectively IS a (not only national, but global) emergency.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Fairytale of New York...

Fairytales are made by Disney and Dreamworks. Truth is made by living our lives and all the sad and good that comes along - broken love, high times, grand ambition, failure, hunger, discrimination, riots and violent social change that should not be pockmarked by intellectual dishonesty.


In loving memory of Jersey McJones... 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Future of Tech...?

 
...versus the past?


If computers transmitted data using photons instead of electrons, they would perform better and use less power. European researchers are now studying a new light-emitting alloy of silicon and germanium to obtain photonic chips, which can revolutionize computing.

Over the last 50 years, photons, the particles that make up light, have replaced electrons for data transfer in communication networks. The high bandwidth of optical signals has driven the enormous growth of telephone systems, television broadcasting and the internet.

However, photons have not yet replaced electrons in computers. Using light for transmitting data in processor chips and their interconnections would allow a substantial increase in the speed of computers (the speed of on-chip and chip-to-chip communication could be increased by a factor of 1000) and at the same time, reduce the power required for them to operate.

Advanced microprocessor chips can contain tens of billions of transistors, and their copper electrical interconnections produce large amounts of heat when in operation. Unlike photons, electrons have a mass and an electrical charge. When flowing through metals or semiconductor material, they are scattered by the silicon and metal atoms, causing them to vibrate and produce heat. Therefore, most of the power supplied to a microprocessor is wasted.

The challenge of emitting light from silicon

Today, the electronics industry is geared up to use silicon in computer chips because of its advantageous electronic properties and availability. It is a good semiconductor, an abundant element, and—as silicon oxide—a constituent of glass and sand.

However, silicon is not very good at dealing with light because of its crystalline structure. For example, it cannot generate photons or control their flux for data processing. Researchers have investigated light-emitting materials such as gallium arsenide and indium phosphine, but their application in computers remains limited because they don't integrate well with current silicon technology.

Recently, European researchers reported in the journal Nature an innovative alloy of silicon and germanium that is optically active. It is a first step, says Jos Haverkort, a physicist at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands: "We showed that this material is very suitable for light emission, and that it is compatible with silicon."

The next step is to develop a silicon-compatible laser that will be integrated into the electronic circuitry as the light source of photonics chips. This is the ultimate aim of the project SiLAS, supported by the EU program FET. The team, led by Erik Bakkers from the Eindhoven University, also includes researchers from the universities of Jena and Munich in Germany, Linz in Austria, Oxford in the UK and from IBM in Switzerland.

To create the laser, the scientists combined silicon and germanium in a hexagonal structure that is able to emit light, overcoming the drawbacks of silicon, in which the atoms are arranged in a pattern of cubes. It was a difficult project. An initial attempt to coax silicon into adopting a hexagonal structure by depositing silicon atoms on a layer of hexagonal germanium failed.

Silicon stubbornly refuses to change its cubic structure when grown on planar hexagonal germanium, explains Jonathan Finley of the Technical University of Munich, who took part in the research by measuring the optical properties of the created silicon samples. "You have to convince nature to allow the growth of this unusual form of silicon germanium. It likes to grow cubic, that is what it does," he says.

However, over the years, the research group at Eindhoven has developed expertise in growing nanotubes, and reasoned that what does not work on a planar surface of germanium might work on a curved surface of a nanotube. And this time things worked out. "What we did was to use a nanowire of gallium arsenide, which has a hexagonal structure. So we had a hexagonal stem, and we created a silicon shell around the core, which also had a hexagonal structure," says Haverkort.

By varying the amount of silicon and germanium deposited on the nanotubes, the researchers found that the hexagonal alloy was capable of emitting light when the concentration of germanium was above 65 percent.

The next step is a demonstration of lasing, in other words, determining how the silicon-germanium alloy can amplify and emit light as a laser, and measure it.

There are several open questions to resolve before silicon germanium can become fully integrated with silicon-based electronics, remarks Haverkort: "First, these devices have to be integrated with existing technologies and that is still a hurdle." He expects that future quantum computers will use applications such as low-cost silicon-based LEDs, optical fibre lasers, light sensors, and light-emitting quantum dots.

In general, the shift from electrical to optical communication will boost innovation in many sectors, from laser-based radars for autonomous driving to sensors for medical diagnosis or air pollution detection in real-time.


Friday, December 11, 2020

There's No Going Back...


It’s time to accept that the pandemic has changed the way we exist forever. Now the human race has to embark on the profoundly difficult and painful process of deciding what form the ‘new normality’ is going to take.

The world has lived with the pandemic for most of 2020, but what is our situation with regard to it now, in early December, in the middle of what the European media is terming ‘the second wave’? Firstly, we should not forget that the distinction between the first and second wave is centred on Europe: in Latin America the virus followed a different path. The peak was reached in between the two European waves, and now, as Europe suffers the second of these, the situation in Latin America has marginally improved.

We should also bear in mind the variations in how the pandemic affects different classes (the poor have been hit more badly), different races (in the US, the blacks and Latinos suffer much more) and the different sexes.

And we should be especially mindful of countries where the situation is so bad – because of war, poverty, hunger and violence – that the pandemic is considered one of the minor evils. Consider, for example, Yemen. As the Guardian reported, “In a country stalked by disease, Covid barely registers. War, hunger and devastating aid cuts have made the plight of Yemenis almost unbearable.” Similarly, when the short war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Covid clearly became less of a priority. However, in spite of these complications, there are some generalisations we can make when comparing the second wave with the peak of the first wave.

What we have discovered about the virus

For a start, some hopes have been dashed. Herd immunity doesn’t appear to work. And deaths are at a record level in Europe, so the hope that we have a milder variation of the virus even though it is spreading more than ever doesn’t hold.

We are also dealing with many unknowns, especially about how the virus is spreading. In some countries, this impenetrability has given birth to a desperate search for guilty parties, such as private home gatherings and work places. The oft-heard phrase that we have to ‘learn to live with the virus’ just expresses our capitulation to it.

While vaccines bring hope, we should not expect they will magically bring an end to all our troubles and the old normality will return. Distribution of the vaccines will be our biggest ethical test: will the principle of universal distribution that covers all of humanity survive, or will it be diluted through opportunist compromises?

It’s also obvious that the limitations of the model which many countries are following – that of striking a balance between fighting the pandemic and keeping the economy alive – are increasingly being demonstrated. The only thing that appears to really work is radical lockdown. Take, for example, the state of Victoria in Australia: in August it had 700 new cases per day, but in late November, Bloomberg reported that it “has gone 28 days with no new cases of the virus, an enviable record as the US and many European countries grapple with surging infections or renewed lockdowns.”

And with regard to mental health, we can now say, in retrospect, that the reaction of people at the peak of the first wave was a normal and healthy response when faced with a threat: their focus was on avoiding infection. It was as if most of them simply didn’t have time for mental problems. Although there is much talk today about mental problems, the predominant way people relate to the epidemic is a strange mix of disparate elements. In spite of the rising number of infections, in most countries the pandemic is still not taken too seriously. In some strange sense, ‘life goes on’. In Western Europe, many people are more concerned if they will be able to celebrate Christmas and do the shopping, or if they will be able to take their usual winter holidays.

Transitioning from fear to depression

However, this ‘life goes on’ stance – indications that we have somehow learned to live with the virus – is quite the opposite of relaxation because the worst is over. It is inextricably mixed with despair, violations of state regulations and protests against them. Since there is no clear perspective offered, there is something deeper than fear at work: we have passed from fear to depression. We feel fear when there is a clear threat, and we feel frustration when obstacles emerge again and again which prevent us from reaching what we strive for. But depression signals that our desire itself is vanishing.

What causes such a sense of disorientation is that the clear order of causality appears to us as perturbed. In Europe, for reasons which remain unclear, the numbers of infections are now falling in France and rising in Germany. Without anyone knowing exactly why, countries which were a couple of months ago held as models of how to deal with the pandemic are now its worst victims. Scientists play with different hypotheses, and this very disunity strengthens a sense of confusion and contributes to a mental crisis.

What further strengthens this disorientation is the mixture of different levels that characterises the pandemic. Christian Drosten, the leading German virologist, pointed out that the pandemic is not just a scientific or health phenomenon, but a natural catastrophe. One should add to this that it is also a social, economic and ideological phenomenon: its actual effect incorporates all these elements.

For example, CNN reports that in Japan, more people died from suicide in October than from Covid during the entirety of 2020, and women were impacted most. But the majority of individuals committed suicide because of the predicament they found themselves in because of the pandemic, so their deaths are collateral damage. 

There is also the impact the pandemic is having on the economy. In the Western Balkans, hospitals are pushed over the edge. As a doctor from Bosnia said, “One of us can do the work of three (people), but not of five.” As France24 reported, one cannot understand this crisis without reflecting on the “brain drain crisis, with an exodus of promising young doctors and nurses leaving to seek better wages and training abroad.” So, again, the catastrophic impact of the pandemic is clearly caused also by the emigration of the workforce.

Accepting the disappearance of our social life

We can therefore safely conclude that one thing is sure: if the pandemic really does proceed in three waves, the general character of each wave will be different. The first wave understandably focused our attention on the health issues, on how to prevent the virus from expanding to an intolerable level. That’s why most countries accepted quarantines, social distancing etc. Although the numbers of infected are much higher in the second wave, the fear of long-term economic consequences is nonetheless growing. And if the vaccines will not prevent the third wave, one can be sure that its focus will be on mental health, on the devastating consequences of the disappearance of what we perceive as normal social life. This is why, even if the vaccines work, mental crises will persist.

The ultimate question we are facing is this: Should we strive for a return to our ‘old’ normality? Or should we accept that the pandemic is one of the signs that we are entering a new ‘post-human’ era (‘post-human’ with regard to our predominant sense of what being human means)? This is clearly not just a choice that concerns our psychic life. It is a choice that is in some sense ‘ontological’, it concerns our entire relation to what we experience as reality.

The conflicts over how best to deal with the pandemic are not conflicts between different medical opinions; they are serious existential ones. Here is how Brenden Dilley, a Texas chat-show host, explained why he is not wearing a mask: “Better to be dead than a dork. Yes, I mean that literally. I’d rather die than look like an idiot right now.” Dilley refuses to wear a mask since, for him, walking around with a mask is incompatible with human dignity at its most basic level.

What is at stake is our basic stance towards human life. Are we – like Dilley – libertarians who reject any encroaching upon our individual freedoms? Are we utilitarians ready to sacrifice thousands of lives for the economic wellbeing of the majority? Are we authoritarians who believe that only a tight state control and regulation can save us? Are we New Age spiritualists who think the epidemic is a warning from nature, a punishment for our exploitation of natural resources? Do we trust that God is just testing us and will ultimately help us to find a way out? Each of these stances relies on a specific vision of what humans are. It concerns the level at which we are, in some sense, all philosophers.

Taking all this into account, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben claims that if we accept the measures against the pandemic, we thereby abandon open social space as the core of our being human and turn into isolated survival machines controlled by science and technology, serving the state administration. So even when our house is on fire, we should gather the courage to go on with life as normal and eventually die with dignity. He writes: “Nothing I’m doing makes any sense if the house is on fire. Yet even when the house is on fire it is necessary to continue as before, to do everything with care and precision, perhaps even more so than before – even if no one notices. Perhaps life itself will disappear from the face of the earth, perhaps no memory whatsoever will remain of what has been done, for better or for worse. But you continue as before, it is too late to change, there is no time anymore.”

One should note an ambiguity in Agamben’s line of argumentation: is “the house on fire” due to the pandemic, global warming etc? Or is our house on fire because of the way we (over)reacted to the reality of the pandemic? “Today the flame has changed its form and nature, it has become digital, invisible and cold – but precisely for this very reason it is even closer still and surrounds us at every moment.” These lines clearly sound Heideggerian: they locate the basic danger in how the pandemic strengthened the way medical science and digital control regulate our reaction to it.

Why we cannot maintain our old way of life

Does this mean that, if we oppose Agamben, we should resign ourselves to the loss of humanity and forget the social freedoms we were used to? Even if we ignore the fact that these freedoms were actually much more limited than it may appear, the paradox is that only by way of passing through the zero point of this disappearance can we keep the space open for the new freedoms-to-come.

If we stick to our old way of life, we will for sure end in new barbarism. In the US and Europe, the new barbarians are precisely those who violently protest against anti-pandemic measures on behalf of personal freedom and dignity – those like Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in- law, who, back in April, bragged that Trump was taking the country “back from the doctors” – in short, back from those who only can help us.

However, one should note that in the very last paragraph of his text, Agamben leaves open the possibility that a new form of post-human spirituality will emerge. “Today humankind is disappearing, like a face drawn in the sand and washed away by the waves. But what is taking its place no longer has a world; it is merely a bare and muted life without history, at the mercy of the computations of power and science. Perhaps, however, it is only by beginning from this wreckage that something else can appear, whether slowly or abruptly – certainly not a god, but not another man either – a new animal perhaps, a soul that lives in some other way…”

Agamben alludes here to famous lines from Foucault’s Les mot et les choses when he refers to humankind disappearing like a figure drawn on sand being erased by waves on a shore. We are effectively entering what can be called a post-human era. The pandemic, global warming and the digitalisation of our lives – including direct digital access to our psychic life – corrode the basic coordinates of our being human.

So how can (post-)humanity be reinvented? Here is a hint. In his opposition to wearing protective masks, Giorgio Agamben refers to French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his claim that the face “speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised.” The face is the part of another’s body through which the abyss of the Other’s imponderable Otherness transpires.

Agamben’s obvious conclusion is that, by rendering the face invisible, the protective mask renders invisible the invisible abyss itself which is echoed by a human face. Really?

There is a clear Freudian answer to this claim: Freud knew well why, in an analytical session – when it gets serious, i.e. after the so-called preliminary encounters – the patient and the analyst are not confronting each other face to face. The face is at its most basic a lie, the ultimate mask, and the analyst only accedes to the abyss of the Other by NOT seeing its face.

Accepting the challenge of post-humanity is our only hope. Instead of dreaming about a ‘return to (old) normality’ we should engage in a difficult and painful process of constructing a new normality. This construction is not a medical or economic problem, it is a profoundly political one: we are compelled to invent a new form of our entire social life.

Norval Morrisseau


Native American symbols...The Loon is a solitary bird of the wilderness that symbolizes tranquility, serenity and the reawakening of old hopes, wishes and dreams. The Loon relies on water and water is a symbol for dreams and multiple levels of consciousness, thus Loons teach us to follow our hopes, dreams and wishes.

Animals act as spiritual guides because they have traits admired by humans. That is why bears symbolize courage and physical strength. It is a good omen that conveys authority. Meanwhile, bear prints represent leadership.

Birds symbolize light-hearted freedom. The tracks are meant to indicate a specific direction.

Butterflies symbolize transformation. However, the color of the butterfly provides further information. A black butterfly signifies bad news or illness, yellow signifies hope and guidance, brown signifies important news, red signifies an important event, and white signifies good luck.

When symbols appear upside down, it symbolizes death. Therefore, this image would indicate the death of a man and a woman.

The circle surrounding the family represents family ties, closeness, and protection. The circle has no starting point or ending point of separation, which means it cannot be broken.

Turtles can live up to 150 years, which is why they symbolize good health and a long life. The shell of the turtle represents perseverance and protection.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Killing a Notion...

 

Donald Trump has been a US president who has revelled in lies and obscenity. As we consider his legacy, his continued crass behaviour should make us ask how such a worthless person got the job in the first place.

On November 23, Donald Trump finally agreed to begin the transition of power, but the way it was announced tells us a lot about him.

Head of the General Services Administration Emily Murphy said in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden that she had determined the transition from the Trump administration could formally begin. She added that she came to her decision “independently” and did not receive pressure from the executive branch. (Murphy referred to Biden as the “apparent election winner” – the opposite of appearance is essence, so her qualification implies that ‘essentially’ Trump won, whatever the final results.

Minutes after Murphy’s letter was first reported, Trump tweeted that he had given her permission to send the letter, but he vowed to continue protesting his own defeat. His campaign team continues to push supporters to back fundraising efforts in a last-ditch bid to beat the election outcome. 
So, Trump approves transition without conceding defeat; he permits acts which are made independently of his will. He is a living contradiction: the ultimate post-modern ironist presenting himself as a guardian of traditional Christian values; the ultimate demolisher of law and stable order presenting himself as its unconditional enforcer.

We find the same tension in how Trump relates to conspiracy theories. When he is asked about radical Rightist groups which propagate violence or conspiracy theories, Trump is ready to formally distance himself from the problematic aspects, while praising the group’s general patriotic attitude.

This distance is empty, of course, and is a purely rhetorical device: the group is silently expected to act upon the implicit calls to violence Trump’s speeches are full of – when he constantly attacks alleged Leftist violence, he does it in terms which are divisive and a call to violence in themselves.

A prime example of this was Trump’s answer when he was asked about the violence propagated and practised by the Proud Boys in the first presidential debate. As was reported at the time, “Minutes after Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right group with members who espouse white supremacism, to ‘stand back and stand by’, on national television… members of the men-only group took to fringe social media sites to celebrate what they considered a ‘historic’ moment for their ideological push against leftists.”

This is – if I can be pardoned using an expression which is very problematic here – Trump at his best. He does tell them to “stand back” – ie to restrain from violence. But he adds “and stand by” – ie to get ready, but for what? The implication is clear: to practise violence if Trump loses the election.

In Trump, we thus encounter a new variation on the old idea of the emperor’s new clothes. While in the original Hans Christian Andersen version an innocent child’s gaze is needed to publicly proclaim that the emperor is naked, in today’s reign of public obscenity, the emperor himself proudly proclaims he has no clothes. But this very openness functions as a redoubled mystification. How?

In homology with Ernst Kantorowicz’s thesis on the King’s Two Bodies, today’s populist emperor has double clothes. So, while he boasts that he is divested of his personal ‘clothes’ of dignity, he keeps his second clothes, the instruments of his symbolic investiture.

For this reason, what makes Trump’s obscenity perverse is that he is not just lying brazenly, without any constraint – he also directly tells the truth when one would expect him to be embarrassed by it. When, in August 2020, he announced his intention to defund the US post service, there was no need for a complex analysis to prove that he was proposing this to make more difficult postal voting and thus deprive the Democrats of votes: he openly stated this was the case.

Lying means you still recognize implicitly some moral norms, you just violate them in reality. But what happened with Trump in this case is worse than lying: in saying what is literally true, he undoes or suspends the very dimension of truth.

We can also clearly see this in how Trump dealt with QAnon, a far-rightconspiracy theory alleging a secret plot against him and his supporters by a supposed ‘deep state’. This is how ABC reported his reaction: “The White House… defended the President’s embrace of a fringe conspiracy group, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying that he was “talking about his supporters” when he called QAnon followers people who “love the country” and said he appreciates their backing.”

Trump was careful not to say that he takes the QAnon theory seriously. Instead, he limited himself to only two facts, both of which are true: those who advocate QAnon theories are supporters of him, and they love America. Plus, he added a subjective fact – which is also true – that he appreciates their backing. The question of the factual truth of QAnon didn’t even enter the picture.

We are thus gradually approaching what effectively can be called a post-truth discursive space, a space which oscillates between pre-modern superstition (conspiracy theories) and post-modern cynical scepticism. This is why Trump is not a fascist; he is something maybe even more dangerous.

With Trump, we see the polar opposite to Stalinism, where the figure of the leader should be kept unblemished at any price. While the Stalinist leader fears that even a minor indecency or indiscretion would destroy his position, our new leaders are ready to go pretty far in renouncing dignity. Trump is famous not in spite of his obscenities, but on account of them.

In the old royal courts, a king often had a clown whose function was to destroy the noble appearance with sarcastic jokes and dirty remarks, thereby confirming – by contrast – the king’s dignity. Trump doesn’t need a clown; he already is his own clown, and no wonder that his acts are sometimes more funny or tasteless than the performances of his comic imitators. The standard situation is thus inverted: Trump is not a dignified person about whom obscene rumors circulate; he is an openly obscene person who wants his obscenity to appear as a mask of his dignity.

All this, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that his ‘excesses’ are not to be taken seriously. In a rare appearance on the electoral campaign, Melania Trump denounced Biden’s “socialist agenda”. So what about Kamala Harris who is usually perceived as more Leftist than the extremely moderate Biden? Her husband was clear on this point: “She’s a communist. She's not a socialist. She's well beyond a socialist. She wants to open up the borders to allow killers and murderers and rapists to pour into our country.” Incidentally, when did open borders become a characteristic of communism?

Biden immediately reacted:“There’s not one single syllable that I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist.” Factually true, but this rebuttal misses the point. The dismissal of Biden and Harris as socialist or communist is not simply a rhetorical exaggeration; Trump is not just saying this, even though he knows it to be untrue.

His ‘exaggerations’ are perfect examples of what one should call realism of notions. Notions are not just names, they structure political space and, as such, have actual effects.

Trump’s ‘cognitive mapping’ of the political space is an almost symmetrical reversal of the Stalinist map in which everybody who opposes the party is considered to be part of a fascist plot. In a similar way, from Trump’s standpoint, the liberal centre is disappearing – or, as his friend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán put it, liberals are just communists with a diploma, which means there are only two true poles: populist nationalists and Communists.

There is a wonderful expression in Serb: “Ne bije al’ ubija u pojam.” Roughly translated, it means, “It doesn’t beat but it kills the concept/notion.” It refers to somebody who, instead of destroying you with direct violence, bombards you with acts which undermine your self-respect so that you end up humiliated, deprived of the very core – or ‘notion’ – of your being.

To ‘kill in a notion’ describes the opposite of the actual destruction (of your empirical reality) in which your ‘notion’ survives in an elevated way (like killing an enemy in such a way that the enemy survives in the minds of thousands as a hero). This is how one should proceed with Hitler and Nazism: not just to destroy him – to get rid of his ‘excesses’ and save the sane core of his project – but to kill him in his notion.

And it’s the same with Trump and his legacy. The true task is not just to defeat him (because there is always the possibility that he will return in 2024), but to ‘kill him in his notion’. To make him visible in all his worthless vanity and inconsistency, but also – and this is the crucial part – to ask how such a worthless person could have become the president of the US. As the German philosopher Hegel would have put it, to kill Trump in his notion means to ‘bring him to his notion’ – ie to allow him to destroy himself by way of just making him appear as what he is.

Sunday, December 6, 2020


SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK AND NICOL A. BARRIA-ASENJO,  "CHILE: TOWARD A NEW SIGNIFIER"
Recently, two events that showed a glimmer of hope occurred in our depressing times: the elections in Bolivia and the APRUEBO referendum in Chile. (On October 25, 2020, voters were asked to choose between “apruebo” – approving changes of the Chilean constitution in the direction of more social justice and freedoms – and “rechazo” – rejecting this change.) In both cases, we have a rare overlap of “formal” democracy (free elections) with a substantial people’s will. Bolivia and Chile proved that, despite all ideological manipulations, even the so-called “bourgeois democracy” can sometimes work. However, today, liberal democracy is reaching its limits: in order to work, it has to be supplemented with… what?

Something very interesting is now emerging in France as a reaction to massive mistrust in state institutions: a rebirth of local citizen’s assemblies first practiced by the Ancient Greeks:

“as far back as 621 BC, the ecclesia, or popular assembly of ancient Athens was a forum in which any male citizen regardless of class could participate. Now, with a pandemic-induced economic and social crisis looming, this ancient democratic tool is being updated for the 21st century. Towns, cities and regions across France are increasingly turning to their citizens to help steer them towards a more egalitarian future.” 

These forums are not organized by local state apparatuses; they are self-organized by active members of local communities outside the state and involve a strong element of chance, of lottery. The number of randomly selected delegates is 150. We find a vaguely similar procedure in Chile after the victory of APRUEBO referendum where 155 individuals, selected outside institutional political forces, will work on the draft of a new constitution. 

After Victory, the Real Struggle 

Mark Twain supposedly said: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” There are no proofs that he really did say or write this; the most probable origin of the phrase is a 1976 newspaper column by Robert S. Borden in The Lowell Sun. Writing about the US electoral system, Burden noted: “Has it ever dawned on the editors that the attitudes of the 70 million projected non-voters may be very consistent with the reality that the concept of voting and electing representatives is basically dishonest and fraudulent? If voting could change anything it would be made illegal!” However, the claim is attributed to Twain for good reasons. It faithfully reflects his stance: although Twain was an advocate of voting rights for everybody (women included) and solicited people to vote, he was deeply sceptical about the machinations that prevent the majority to express their will. So, one should accept the quoted thesis in principle, as universally valid, but one should ground this universality in an exception. From time to time, there ARE elections and referendums that DO matter. While these elections are the only ones that deserve to be characterized as “democratic,” they are, as a rule, experienced as a sign of instability, as an indication that democracy is in danger. 

The January coup against the Morales regime in Bolivia legitimized itself as a return to parliamentary “normality” against the “totalitarian” danger that Morales would abolish democracy and change Bolivia into a new Cuba or Venezuela. The truth was that, in the decade of Morales’ reign, Bolivia did establish a successful new “normality,” bringing together the democratic mobilization of the people and clear economic progress. As their new President Luche Arce, Morales’ minister of economy, pointed out, in the decade of Morales’ reign Bolivians enjoyed the best years of their lives. It was the coup against Morales that destroyed this hard-won normality and brought new chaos and misery, so that the electoral victory of Arce means that Bolivia doesn’t have to begin from zero, but just return to the state of things before the coup. 

In Chile, the situation is more complex. October is a Chilean month, the month when radical turns in the country’s political history take place. It was on October 24, 1970 that Salvador Allende’s victory was ratified; on October 18, 2019 wide popular protests, which anounced the end of Pinochet-normalization, exploded; and on October 25, 2020 (incidentally, the very date of the October Revolution according to the old Russian calendar) the victory of APRUEBO took place, bringing with it the dissolution of the repressive signifiers, built on the impunity of crimes and violations of human rights. October is, thus, not just another month in the Chilean calendar; it is deeply associated with the historical and symbolic ruptures the people decided to accomplish. 

Although respecting all formal-democratic rules, Allende enforced a series of measures that were perceived as way too “radical” by the ruling class; with active support from the US, the ruling class organized a series of economic sabotages, and when even this didn’t diminish popular support for Allende, his government was overthrown by a military coup d’etat on September 11, 1973 (the TRUE catastrophe of 9/11). After 4 years of military dictatorship, in 1977, the creation of the Political Constitution of Chile was entrusted to the Commission of Studies of the New Constitution formed by a group of 12 people appointed by the Military Junta. The draft drawn up by this group was modified by the Council of State, also designated by the Junta, and finally by General Pinochet himself. The purpose of this document was to ensure the survival of the model that was being implemented in the country, leaving the capacity for future freedom suspended with respect to economic decisions that could threaten such a model. 

Pinochet thus enforced his own “democratic” normalization with the new constitution, which safely secured the privileges of the rich within a neoliberal order. Protests that exploded in October 2019 are a proof that the Pinochet democratization was fake, as is every democracy tolerated or even promoted by a dictatorial power. The APRUEBO movement, which grew out of these protests, wisely focused on changing the constitution: it made it clear to the majority of Chileans that the democratic normalization coordinated by Pinochet was a continuation of Pinochet regime with other means. The Pinochet forces remained in the background as “deep state,” making sure that the democratic game did not run out of control. Now, that the illusion of Pinochet normalization is broken, Chile doesn’t have an already established order to return to, so it will have to build carefully a new normality, for which even the glorious Allende years cannot really serve as a model. 

There are dangers on this path. The electoral victory is only the beginning: the real hard work begins the day after, when the enthusiasm is over and the new normality of a post-capitalist world has to be patiently constructed. In a way, this struggle will be more difficult than the protests and campaign for APRUEBO. The campaign had a clear enemy and just had to articulate the justices and misery caused by that enemy, with the emancipatory goals remaining in a comfortable abstraction: dignity, social and economic justice, etc. Now, APRUEBO has to operationalize its program, to translate it into a series of concrete measures, and this will bring out all internal differences that are ignored in the ecstatic solidarity of the people. 

Threats to the emancipatory process are already appearing. As expected, some Rightists try to appropriate the discourse of social democracy against the APRUEBO “extremists.” Within APRUEBO itself, there are signs of a conflict between those who want to remain within traditional representative democracy and those who want a more radical social mobilization. The way out of this predicament is not to get stuck in boring “principled” debates, but to get to work, elaborating and enforcing different projects. Daniel Jadue is the right person to coordinate these efforts, also with regard to his achievements as the mayor of Recoleta. The great hit of the Chilean group Los Prisioneros, “El baile de los que sobran” (“The dance of those who are left over”), became a musical symbol of the protesters occupying the streets. Now, Chile needs el trabajo duro de los que sobran (the hard work of those who are left over). If this does not happen, the old regime will survive with a new social-democratic mask, and the tragedy of 1973 (the coup against Allende) will repeat itself as a postmodern cynical farce. 

It is too risky to predict how the struggle will end. The main obstacle is not the legacy of Pinochet as such, but the legacy of the gradual (fake) opening of his dictatorial regime. Especially throughout the 1990s, Chilean society underwent what we may call a fast post-modernization: an explosion of consumerist hedonism, superficial sexual permissiveness, competitive individualism, etc. Those in power realized that such atomized social space is much more effective than direct state oppression against radical Leftist projects that rely on social solidarity. Classes continue to exist “in themselves” but not “for themselves”; I see others from my class more as competitors than as members of a same group with common interests. Direct state oppression tends to unite the opposition and promote organized forms of resistance, while in “postmodern” societies even extreme dissatisfaction assumes the form of chaotic revolts that soon run out of breath, unable to reach the “Leninist” stage of an organized force with a clear program.[1] 

What gives some hope in Chile are the specific features of changes. Suffice it to mention just two. The first is the strong political engagement of psychoanalysts, predominantly Lacanians, on the Left: they played a strong role already in protests that erupted in October of 2019, as well as in the organization that led to the victory of APRUEBO in the referendum. Second, in Chile (as in some other countries like Bolivia, but in contrast to Brazil), the new Rightist populism has never successfully caught on: popular mobilization has a clear Leftist character. A question, then, arises: are these two features somehow connected? 

Psychoanalysis, Ethics, Politics 

Where does psychoanalysis stand with regard to radical social changes? It mostly occupies a “moderate” liberal place and worries about the traps of a radical emancipatory process. Lacan offers an exemplary case in this regard. He clearly demonstrated that the basic antagonism of our psychic life is not the one between egotism and altruism, but between the domain of the Good in all its guises and the domain beyond the pleasure-principle in all its guises (the excess of Love, of the death-drive, of envy, of Duty…). 

In philosophical terms, this antagonism can be best exemplified by the names of Aristotle and Kant. Aristotle’s ethics is the ethics of the Good, the ethics of moderation, of the proper measure, directed against excesses, while Kant’s ethics is the ethics of unconditional duty, enjoining us to act beyond all proper measure, even if our acts lead to a catastrophe. No wonder that many critics find Kant’s rigorism too “fanatical,” and no wonder that Lacan discerned in Kantian unconditional ethical command the first formulation of his own ethics of fidelity to one’s desire! 

Any ethics of the Good is ultimately an ethics of goods, of something that can be divided, distributed, exchanged (for other goods). This is why Lacan was deeply skeptical about the notion of distributive justice: it remains at the level of the distribution of goods and cannot deal even with a relatively simple paradox of envy. What if I prefer to get less, provided that my neighbor gets even less than me (and this awareness that my neighbor is even more deprived gives me a surplus-enjoyment)? This is why egalitarianism itself should never be accepted at face value: the notion (and practice) of egalitarian justice, insofar as it is sustained by envy, relies on the inversion of the standard renunciation accomplished to benefit others: ‘I am ready to renounce it, so that others will (also) NOT (be able to) have it!’ Far from being opposed to the spirit of sacrifice, Evil here emerges as the very spirit of sacrifice, ready to ignore one’s own well-being, if, through my sacrifice, I can deprive the Other of its enjoyment… 

This, however, does not work as a general argument against all projects of egalitarian emancipation, but only against projects which focus on redistribution. We should never forget that distributive justice is a Left-liberal (or social-democratic) notion. One remains within the capitalist order of production as the “only one that really works”; one only tries to correct the imbalance of wealth by heavily taxing the rich, etc. Our goal today should be more radical: as it is becoming more and more clear from the ongoing crises (the Covid-19 pandemic, global warming, forest fires, and others), global capitalist order is reaching its limit, threatening to drag the entire humanity into the abyss of self-destruction. 

Once we realize this, cynical liberal conservatism advocated by Jacques-Alain Miller no longer works. Miller endorses the old conservative “wisdom” that, in order to maintain stability, one has to respect and follow routines established by a choice which is 

“always arbitrary and authoritarian. ‘There is no progressivism which holds,’ but rather a particular kind of hedonism called ‘liberalism of enjoyment.’ One has to maintain intact the routine of the cité, its laws and traditions, and accept that a kind of obscurantism is necessary in order to maintain social order. ‘There are questions one shouldn’t ask. If you turn the social turtle on its back, you will never succeed in turning it back onto its paws.’”[2]

One cannot but note that Chile in the “permissive” 1990s offers a perfect case of such “liberalism of enjoyment” which maintains intact the routine of the cité. And, indeed, Miller fearlessly spells out the political implications of his notion of a psychoanalyst who “occupies the position of an ironist, who takes care not to intervene into the political field. He acts so that semblances remain at their places while making sure that the subjects under his care do not take them as real … one should somehow bring oneself to remain taken in by them (fooled by them).”[3] 

In relation to politics, then, a psychoanalyst 

“doesn’t propose projects, he cannot propose them, he can only mock the projects of others, which limits the scope of his statements. The ironist has no great design, he waits for the other to speak first and then brings about his fall as fast as possible … Let us say this is political wisdom, nothing more.”[4] 

This, again, perfectly fits a postmodern society, where those in power have more important things to do than to “propose projects.” It is the impotent Left (or extreme Right) that “propose projects,” and cynical psychoanalysts are here to warn against the dangers of such projects… But what to do when the turtle (of our social order) IS already on its back, so wounded that there is no way of turning it back onto its paws? 

There is no time for warnings not to disturb appearances; the appearances are destroying themselves! Did a self-professed Christian conservative Donald Trump not do more to disturb appearances than the all the Leftists opposing him? In such moments, when social order is in disarray, psychoanalytic theorists tend to promote another type of warning: don’t trust the revolutionaries who promise to lead us out of the catastrophe into a new, more just order. 

This seems to fit well the general psychoanalytic stance according to which even our noblest acts conceal a narcissistic, masochist, etc., libidinal motivation. Jacqueline Rose recalls Freud’s fantasy about how tyranny emerged when early humanity was struck by the horror of the Ice Age: 

“Man’s response to such a brute curtailing of his drives was hysteria: the origins of conversion hysteria in modern times in which the libido is a danger to be subdued. Man also became a tyrant, bestowing on himself unrestrained dominance as a reward for his power to safeguard the lives of the many: ‘Language was magic to him, his thoughts seemed omnipotent to him, he understood the world according to his ego.’ I love this. Tyranny is the silent companion of catastrophe, as has been so flagrantly demonstrated in the behaviour of the rulers of several nations across the world today, not least America’s soon to be former president, Donald Trump.”[5] 

Rose draws a general conclusion here: from the Ice Age to today’s actual and future calamities (the pandemic, global warming, the nuclear winter after a new global war), the predominant reaction to the catastrophe is the rise of tyranny in one or another form. A global calamity brings the worst out in human nature: 

“Today, in the midst of a pandemic seemingly without end, there are calls for new forms of solidarity in life and in death, and for a new inclusive, political consciousness. How, though, to find a place in this new reality for the darker aspects of being human which, like upside-down sunflowers, remain at the centre of the unfinished project of psychoanalysis? Failing which, with the best will in the world, any move we make in that direction will prove in the long run to be an empty gesture.”[6] 

While there is a substantial truth in this line of thought, one should nonetheless not just add details that tell a different story (Trump is not a consequence of the catastrophe; the pandemic was rather the main reason of his downfall), but reveal a much more basic other side of the coin. The lesson of psychoanalysis is not just a warning against emancipatory naivety and about deep destructive forces in human nature (Soviet Communism turned into Stalinism, etc.). The two world wars also mobilized the radical Left and gave birth to revolutions: after WWII, the Social Democratic welfare state entered its golden age. Just remember the shock of Churchill – the authority figure in the UK who led it to victory – losing the elections in early 1945 and being replaced by Clement Attlee, a much less charismatic but effective leader of the Labour Party who was, measured by today’s standards, very radical.

 Is Chile not a proof of how the combination of calamities (protests that began in October 2019, Covid-19…) can lead to extraordinary popular mobilization? The pandemic, as well as the way it was exploited by the state to squash popular protests, was a crucial factor in the rise of APRUEBO. The usual platitude that calamities bring the worst and the best out of us seems closer to truth here. 

Freud himself was fully aware of this when he elaborated the complex interaction between Ego, Super-Ego and Id (to which one should add the I as different from Ego and moral law as different from Super-Ego). His starting point is the strange phenomenon of the “unconscious sense of guilt” which 

“sets us fresh problems, especially when we gradually come to see that in a great number of neuroses an unconscious sense of guilt of this kind plays a decisive economic part and puts the most powerful obstacles in the way of recovery. If we come back once more to our scale of values, we shall have to say that not only what is lowest but also what is highest in the ego can be unconscious.”[7] 

Or, as he puts it later in the same text: “If anyone were to put forward the paradoxical proposition that normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes but also far more moral than he knows. Psycho-analysis, on whose findings the first half of the assertion rests, would have no objection to raise against the second half.”[8] (One should note here the use of the opposition between belief and knowledge: a normal man is more immoral than he BELIEVES and more moral than he KNOWS.) It is not that Superego is the agent of morality, and Id—the reservoir of dark “evil” drives, but it is also not that Superego stands for internalized social oppression and Id—for drives that should be liberated. Freud always insisted on the dark hidden link between Superego and Id: the unbearable pressure of the Superego sustained by the energy from the Id, plus we can also be more moral than we know. Imagine a typical postmodern permissive individual who perceives himself as a tolerant egotist searching for all kind of pleasures: a closer look quickly reveals that his activity is regulated by taboos and prohibitions he is not aware of. 

However, this unconscious morality is not constrained to pathological inhibitions, of which my Ego is not aware; it also includes ethical miracles, such as resistance to commit an act I consider unacceptable, even if I pay the ultimate price for my refusal. Think of Antigone and remember, too, that Lacan, in his reading of her figure, does NOT do what one would expect from an analyst (looking for some pathological fixation, traces of incestuous desire, etc.) Rather, he tries to save the ethical purity of her NO to Creon. Or think of an irrepressible commandment one feels to do something suicidally heroic: one does it simply because one cannot not do it (risk one’s life in public protests, joining resistance against a dictatorship or occupation, helping others in natural catastrophes). 

Here, again, one should resist the obvious pseudo-psychoanalytic temptation to search for some “deeper” pathological motivation that would explain such acts by, say, a combination of the death drive with narcissism. Consider, for instance, thousands of underpaid healthcare workers who help the infected, well aware that they are risking their lives, and of volunteers who offer their help. They are much more numerous than those who have submitted themselves to brutal tyrants. This is also the reason why Lacan claims that the status of the Freudian unconscious is ethical: for Lacan, Kant’s moral law is desire at its purest. 

The Struggle for Hegemony 

So, what can psychoanalysis tell us about the victory of APRUEBO in Chile? Instead of a pseudo-Freudian probing into the unconscious depths of a nation, it would be productive to begin with Lacan’s notion of the Master Signifier and apply it to the space of ideology. Let us begin with a comparison between Chile and the United States. 

One of the bad surprises of the US presidential elections was how many votes Trump gained also outside what people consider his constituency – among Blacks, Latinos, even the poor ones, and many women – plus how many votes Biden gained among old white men who were supposed to vote in much larger bloc for Trump. This unexpected reversal proves that Republicans are now, if anything, more of a working class party than Democrats, and that the almost symmetric 50/50 division of the US political body is not directly reflecting a class division but is the result of a whole series of ideological mystifications and displacements.[9] Democrats are much stronger than Republicans among the new “digital” capital (Microsoft, Amazon…), and they are also discreetly supported by the big banks, while many of the impoverished in the poorest parts of the US support Republican populism. The result is that in the second half of November 2020 we can read serious media reports with titles like this: “Can Trump actually stage a coup and stay in office for a second term?”[10] Before Trump’s era, such titles were reserved for the reports from so-called rogue states in the Third World. And, obviously, the US has the honor to become the first First World rogue state. 

In stark contrast to this clear 50/50 division, the victorious APRUEBO in Chile referendum got no less than 78.27% of the total votes against RECHAZO, which got only 21.73% of the total votes. What is crucial is that this enormous voting gap is directly proportional to the concentration and distribution of wealth and privileges, with a much smaller group of the population being part of the elite (the “Rejection” option) and a majority group being aware of this social inequality and injustice (the “Approval” option). So, Chile is unique not because of some exotic particularity, but, precisely, because it renders directly visible the class struggle, which is obfuscated and displaced in the US and elsewhere. Chile’s uniqueness (exception) resides in the very universality of its situation. 

But here we should avoid the illusion that the disposition of votes in Chile was more “natural,” faithfully reflecting predominant class divisions, while in the US the electoral count doesn’t “reflect” faithfully the class division, but is distorted by ideological manipulations. There is nothing “natural” in political and ideological struggle for hegemony. EVERY hegemony is the result of a struggle, whose outcome is open. The victory of APRUEBO in Chile does not only demonstrate the absence of ideological manipulations, so that the distribution of votes could “faithfully” reflect class division; APRUEBO won because of a long and active struggle for ideological hegemony. 

In this context, we should use Ernesto Laclau’s theory of the struggle for ideological hegemony, which is ultimately the struggle for Master Signifiers – not only which Master Signifier will predominate, but also how this Master Signifier will organize the entire political space.[11] Let’s take the obvious example: ecology, the struggle against global warming and pollution. With the exception of (more and more rare) deniers, almost everybody agrees that the ecological crisis is one of the central issues today, that it poses a threat to our very survival. The struggle turns around what Laclau called “chain of equivalences”: to which other signifiers (topics of ideologico-political struggle) will “ecology” be linked? We have state ecology (ony a strong state can deal with global warming), capitalist ecology (only market mechanisms – higher taxes on products that pollute our environment are the way out), anti-capitalist ecology (the dynamics of capitalist expansion are the main cause of our ruthless exploitation of nature), authoritarian ecology (ordinary people cannot understand the complexity of ecological crisis; we have to trust strong state power supported by science), feminist ecology (the ultimate cause of our troubles is the social power of men who are more aggressive and exploitative), conservative ecology (we need to return to a more balanced traditional mode of life), etc. The struggle for hegemony is not just the struggle to accept ecology as a serious issue, but much more the struggle for what this word will mean, how it will be linked to other notions, including science, feminism, capitalism… 

The imposition of a new Master Signifier is, as a rule, experienced as “finding the right name” for what we are trying to grasp. However, this act of “finding” is productive; it establishes a new symbolic field. In Chile, the Master Signifier of the ongoing protests and of the APRUEBO movement is “dignity.” Chile is not an exception here: despite poverty, hunger and violence, despite economic exploitation, the protests that are exploding from Turkey and Belarus to France regularly evoke dignity. Again, there is nothing specifically Leftist or even emancipatory in “dignity”. If one were to ask Pinochet himself about it, he would without any doubt celebrate dignity, though by including it in a different “chain of equivalences” along the patriotic-military line: his 1973 coup saved Chile’s dignity from a totalitarian-Leftist threat. For the partisans of APRUEBO, on the contrary, “dignity” is linked to social justice that will diminish poverty, universal healthcare, guaranteed personal and social freedoms, etc. The same goes for with “justice”: Pinochet would undoubtedly advocate justice, but his kind of justice, not egalitarian economic justice. “Justice” would have meant that everybody, especially those at the bottom, should know their proper place… One of the reasons for the triumph of APRUEBO was that they won the struggle for hegemony, so that, if now “dignity” and “justice” are mentioned in Chile, they mean what APRUEBO stands for. 

This, of course, doesn’t imply that political or economic struggles can be reduced to discursive conflicts. What it does imply is that the level of discourse has its own autonomous logic, not only in the sense that economic interests cannot be directly translated into symbolic space, but in a more radical sense: how economic and social interests are perceived is already mediated by discursive processes. A simple example: when a country is starving, hunger is a fact. But what matters is how this fact is experienced. Is its cause attributed to Jewish financiers? Is it perceived as a fact of nature (bad weather), or as an effect of class exploitation? Another example: only after the rise of feminism was the subordinated role of women in their families and their exclusion from social life perceived as an injustice. Before that moment, to be married to a loving husband and well provided for was considered great luck. The first step of feminism is not a direct step towards justice, but the awareness of women that their situation is unjust. In a homologous way, workers don’t protest when they live in poverty; they protest when they experience their poverty as an injustice, for which the ruling class, as well as the state, are responsible. 

Those who are ready to dismiss these considerations as a step towards “discursive idealism” should remember how Lenin was obsessed with details in political programs, emphasising that “every little difference may become a big one if it is insisted on,”[12] and how one word (or its absence) in a program can change the destiny of a revolution. These words are not big central programmatic ideas; they depend on a concrete situation: 

“Every question ‘runs in a vicious circle’ because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.”[13] 

Remember that, in 1917, Lenin’s slogan for the revolution was not “Socialist revolution” but “land and peace”, the desire of the broad masses to own the land they were working on and to see the end of the war. History is not an “objective” development, but a dialectical process in which what “really goes on” is inextricably mediated by its ideological symbolization. This is why, as Walter Benjamin repeatedly pointed out, history changes the past, i.e., it changes how this past is present today, as part of our historical memory.[14]

Let’s imagine that Pinochet’s re-normalization remained in place and that protests that began in October 2019 were quickly suppressed. Let’s further imagine that in this process of false normalization, the figure of Pinochet himself was discarded and his coup condemned. Such a gesture of settling the accounts with the past would have meant the ultimate triumph of the legacy of Pinochet: this legacy would have survived in the constitution that grounds the existing social order. His dictatorship would have been reduced to a short violent interruption between two periods of democratic normality. But this didn’t happen, and what took place in Chile in 2019-2020 changed history: a new narrative of the past imposed itself, a narrative which “de-normalized” post-Pinochet democracy as a continuation of his rule by democratic means. 

There is a wonderful expression in Serbian: “Ne bije al’ ubija u pojam. /It doesn’t beat, but it kills in the notion./” The expression refers to somebody who, instead of destroying you with direct violence, bombards you with acts that undermine your self-respect, so that you end up humiliated, deprived of the very core (“notion”) of your being. To “kill in a notion” is a spontaneously Hegelian expression: it describes the opposite of the actual destruction (of your empirical reality), in which your “notion” survives in an elevated way (like killing an enemy in such a way that the enemy survives in the minds of thousands as a hero). In short, it describes a gesture of anti-Aufhebung: what survives is your contingent empirical reality deprived of its notion. This is how one should proceed with Hitler and Nazism: not to “sublate” them (to get rid of their “excesses” and save the sane core of the project) but to kill them in their notion, to destroy this very notion. And it’s the same with Trump and his legacy: the true task is not just to defeat him (opening up the possibility that he will return in 2024), but to “kill him in his notion” – to make him visible in all his worthless vanity and inconsistency. Again, in Hegelese, to kill him in his notion means to bring him to his notion, i.e., to destroy him immanently, to allow him to destroy himself by way of just making him appear as what he is. 

To kill a movement in its notion, one needs new signifiers. Gabriel Tupinamba’s essay “Vers un Signifiant Nouveau: Our Task after Lacan” addresses precisely this problem. “Towards a new signifier” is the expression Lacan used in his seminar given on March 15, 1977[15], in the years after he dissolved his school, admitting its (and his own) failure. At the level of theory, this search for a new signifier indicates that he desperately tried to move beyond the central topic of his teaching in 1960s, the obsession with the Real, a traumatic/impossible core of jouissance that eludes every symbolization and can only be briefly confronted in an authentic act of blinding force. Lacan is no longer satisfied with such an encounter of a central gap or impossibility as the ultimate human experience: he sees the true task in the move that should follow such an experience, the invention of a new Master Signifier, which will locate the gap/impossibility in a new way. In politics, this means that one should leave behind the false poetry of great revolts that dissolve the hegemonic order. The true task is to impose a new order, and this process begins with new signifiers. Without new signifiers, there is no real social change. 

Notes: 

[1] For a detailed analysis of this topic, see Jamadier Esteban Uribe Munoz and Pablo Johnson, “El pasaje al acto de Telémaco: psicoanálisis y política ante el 18 de octubre chileno,” to appear in Política y Sociedad (Madrid). 

[2] Nicolas Fleury, Le réel insensé: Introduction à la pensée de Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris: Germina 2010, p. 96 (quote from J.-A. Miller). 

[3] Op.cit., pp. 93–4. 

[4] Jacques-Alain Miller, “La psychanalyse, la cité, les communautés,” La cause freudienne 68 (February 2008), pp. 109–10. 

[5] Jacqueline Rose, “To Die One’s Own Death”, LRB Vol. 42 No. 22, quoted from https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n22/jacqueline-rose/to-die-one-s-own-death.

[6] Rose, op.cit. 

[7] Sigmund Freud, “The Ego andf the Id,” quoted from https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-ego-and-the-id-pdf-ebook.jsp, 

[8] Freud, op.cit. 

[9] See Mike Davis, “Rio Grande Valley Republicans,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 22 (19 November 2020). 

[10] See Can Trump actually stage a coup and stay in office for a second term? | US news | The Guardian. 

[11] See Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), London: Verso Books 2007.

 [12] V.I. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, available at Lenin: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (marxists.org) 

[13] V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, available at Lenin: What Is To Be Done? (marxists.org). 

[14] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, New York: Mariner Books 2019. 

[15] See Jacques Lacan, «Vers un signifiant nouveau», Séminaire du 15.03.77, in //Ornicar? 17/18.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Difference and Repetition

If you ever let go, my friend
We will have to start again
Haven't even got that far to go
Take it slow

If you ever let go, my friend
We will have to start again
Haven't even got that far to go
Take it slow

If you ever let go, my friend
We will have to start again
Haven't even got that far to go
Take it slow

Take me higher, not to sea
There's a line that you must tow
That exists somewhere between
What you say and what you know

If you ever let go, my friend
We will have to start again
Haven't even got that far to go
Take it slow

Are you getting higher after all?
Keep on going on, keep on going up-up-up-up-up
Are you getting higher after all?
Keep on going on, keep on going up-up-up-up-up
As you reach midday, you'll have to roll away
As you reach midday, I'll watch you roll away

If you ever let go, my friend
I will never leave your side
It doesn't even matter
where you land
Take my hand

Take me higher, not to sea
There's a line that you must tow
That exists somewhere between
What you say and what you know

If you ever let go
Are you getting higher after all? (We will have to start again)

Keep on going on, keep on going up-up-up-up-up
Are you getting higher after all? (We will have to start again)
Keep on going on, keep on going up-up-up-up-up

As we reach midday, you'll have to roll away
As we reach midday, I'll watch you roll away

If you ever let go

Friday, November 27, 2020

A Pervert's Guide to Podcasting...

 

Hating the Devil...




 Slavoj Žižek, "Trump’s flexible relationship with the truth made him more dangerous than a fascist"

Donald Trump has been a US president who has revelled in lies and obscenity. As we consider his legacy, his continued crass behaviour should make us ask how such a worthless person got the job in the first place.

On November 23, Donald Trump finally agreed to begin the transition of power, but the way it was announced tells us a lot about him.

Head of the General Services Administration Emily Murphy said in a letter to President-elect Joe Biden that she had determined the transition from the Trump administration could formally begin. She added that she came to her decision “independently” and did not receive pressure from the executive branch. (Murphy referred to Biden as the “apparent election winner” – the opposite of appearance is essence, so her qualification implies that ‘essentially’ Trump won, whatever the final results.

Minutes after Murphy’s letter was first reported, Trump tweeted that he had given her permission to send the letter, but he vowed to continue protesting his own defeat. His campaign team continues to push supporters to back fundraising efforts in a last-ditch bid to beat the election outcome.

 So, Trump approves transition without conceding defeat; he permits acts which are made independently of his will. He is a living contradiction: the ultimate post-modern ironist presenting himself as a guardian of traditional Christian values; the ultimate demolisher of law and stable order presenting himself as its unconditional enforcer.

We find the same tension in how Trump relates to conspiracy theories. When he is asked about radical Rightist groups which propagate violence or conspiracy theories, Trump is ready to formally distance himself from the problematic aspects, while praising the group’s general patriotic attitude.

This distance is empty, of course, and is a purely rhetorical device: the group is silently expected to act upon the implicit calls to violence Trump’s speeches are full of – when he constantly attacks alleged Leftist violence, he does it in terms which are divisive and a call to violence in themselves.

A prime example of this was Trump’s answer when he was asked about the violence propagated and practised by the Proud Boys in the first presidential debate. As was reported at the time, “Minutes after Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right group with members who espouse white supremacism, to ‘stand back and stand by’, on national television… members of the men-only group took to fringe social media sites to celebrate what they considered a ‘historic’ moment for their ideological push against leftists.”

This is – if I can be pardoned using an expression which is very problematic here – Trump at his best. He does tell them to “stand back” – ie to restrain from violence. But he adds “and stand by” – ie to get ready, but for what? The implication is clear: to practise violence if Trump loses the election.

In Trump, we thus encounter a new variation on the old idea of the emperor’s new clothes. While in the original Hans Christian Andersen version an innocent child’s gaze is needed to publicly proclaim that the emperor is naked, in today’s reign of public obscenity, the emperor himself proudly proclaims he has no clothes. But this very openness functions as a redoubled mystification. How?

In homology with Ernst Kantorowicz’s thesis on the King’s Two Bodies, today’s populist emperor has double clothes. So, while he boasts that he is divested of his personal ‘clothes’ of dignity, he keeps his second clothes, the instruments of his symbolic investiture.

For this reason, what makes Trump’s obscenity perverse is that he is not just lying brazenly, without any constraint – he also directly tells the truth when one would expect him to be embarrassed by it. When, in August 2020, he announced his intention to defund the US post service, there was no need for a complex analysis to prove that he was proposing this to make more difficult postal voting and thus deprive the Democrats of votes: he openly stated this was the case.

Lying means you still recognize implicitly some moral norms, you just violate them in reality. But what happened with Trump in this case is worse than lying: in saying what is literally true, he undoes or suspends the very dimension of truth.

We can also clearly see this in how Trump dealt with QAnon, a far-rightconspiracy theory alleging a secret plot against him and his supporters by a supposed ‘deep state’. This is how ABC reported his reaction: “The White House… defended the President’s embrace of a fringe conspiracy group, with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany saying that he was “talking about his supporters” when he called QAnon followers people who “love the country” and said he appreciates their backing.”

Trump was careful not to say that he takes the QAnon theory seriously. Instead, he limited himself to only two facts, both of which are true: those who advocate QAnon theories are supporters of him, and they love America. Plus, he added a subjective fact – which is also true – that he appreciates their backing. The question of the factual truth of QAnon didn’t even enter the picture.

We are thus gradually approaching what effectively can be called a post-truth discursive space, a space which oscillates between pre-modern superstition (conspiracy theories) and post-modern cynical scepticism. This is why Trump is not a fascist; he is something maybe even more dangerous.

With Trump, we see the polar opposite to Stalinism, where the figure of the leader should be kept unblemished at any price. While the Stalinist leader fears that even a minor indecency or indiscretion would destroy his position, our new leaders are ready to go pretty far in renouncing dignity. Trump is famous not in spite of his obscenities, but on account of them.

In the old royal courts, a king often had a clown whose function was to destroy the noble appearance with sarcastic jokes and dirty remarks, thereby confirming – by contrast – the king’s dignity. Trump doesn’t need a clown; he already is his own clown, and no wonder that his acts are sometimes more funny or tasteless than the performances of his comic imitators. The standard situation is thus inverted: Trump is not a dignified person about whom obscene rumors circulate; he is an openly obscene person who wants his obscenity to appear as a mask of his dignity.

All this, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that his ‘excesses’ are not to be taken seriously. In a rare appearance on the electoral campaign, Melania Trump denounced Biden’s “socialist agenda”. So what about Kamala Harris who is usually perceived as more Leftist than the extremely moderate Biden? Her husband was clear on this point: “She’s a communist. She's not a socialist. She's well beyond a socialist. She wants to open up the borders to allow killers and murderers and rapists to pour into our country.” Incidentally, when did open borders become a characteristic of communism?

Biden immediately reacted:“There’s not one single syllable that I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist.” Factually true, but this rebuttal misses the point. The dismissal of Biden and Harris as socialist or communist is not simply a rhetorical exaggeration; Trump is not just saying this, even though he knows it to be untrue.

His ‘exaggerations’ are perfect examples of what one should call realism of notions. Notions are not just names, they structure political space and, as such, have actual effects.

Trump’s ‘cognitive mapping’ of the political space is an almost symmetrical reversal of the Stalinist map in which everybody who opposes the party is considered to be part of a fascist plot. In a similar way, from Trump’s standpoint, the liberal centre is disappearing – or, as his friend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán put it, liberals are just communists with a diploma, which means there are only two true poles: populist nationalists and Communists.

There is a wonderful expression in Serb: “Ne bije al’ ubija u pojam.” Roughly translated, it means, “It doesn’t beat but it kills the concept/notion.” It refers to somebody who, instead of destroying you with direct violence, bombards you with acts which undermine your self-respect so that you end up humiliated, deprived of the very core – or ‘notion’ – of your being.

To ‘kill in a notion’ describes the opposite of the actual destruction (of your empirical reality) in which your ‘notion’ survives in an elevated way (like killing an enemy in such a way that the enemy survives in the minds of thousands as a hero). This is how one should proceed with Hitler and Nazism: not just to destroy him – to get rid of his ‘excesses’ and save the sane core of his project – but to kill him in his notion.

And it’s the same with Trump and his legacy. The true task is not just to defeat him (because there is always the possibility that he will return in 2024), but to ‘kill him in his notion’. To make him visible in all his worthless vanity and inconsistency, but also – and this is the crucial part – to ask how such a worthless person could have become the president of the US. As the German philosopher Hegel would have put it, to kill Trump in his notion means to ‘bring him to his notion’ – ie to allow him to destroy himself by way of just making him appear as what he is.