Friday, June 26, 2020
With everything that’s plunging the world into chaos right now, one thing surprising me is, why are Greta Thunberg and Bernie Sanders comparatively quiet? Make no mistake, racism, climate issues and the pandemic are all connected.
Except for a short note from Greta that she thinks she survived the Covid infection, the movement she has mobilized has failed to avoid getting drowned out by the Covid-19 pandemic panic and the anti-racism protests in the US. As for Bernie, although he advocated measures (like universal healthcare) which are now, amid the pandemic, recognized as necessary all around the world, he is also effectively nowhere to be seen or heard. Why aren’t we seeing more, not less, of the political figures whose programs and insights are today more relevant than ever?
In the last months, the topic of Covid totally eclipsed ecological concerns and was only overshadowed in the last weeks by anti-racist protests which spread from the US all around the globe. The crucial ideological and political battle that is going on these days concerns the relationship between the three domains: Covid epidemics, ecological crises, racism. The pressure that comes from the establishment is to keep these three domains apart, and even to hint at tensions between them. One often hears that our main task now is to get the economy moving, and that to do this we should neglect ecological problems a little bit; one hears that chaotic anti-racist protests often violate social distancing and for that reason contribute to spreading Covid infections… Against this line of reasoning, one should insist on the basic unity of the three domains: epidemics explode as part of our unbalanced relationship with our natural environs, they are not just a health problem; anti-racist protests were also given the additional boost by the fact that racial minorities are much more threatened by the epidemics than the white majority which can afford self-isolation and better medical care. We are thus dealing with crises which erupt as moments of the dynamics of global capitalism: all three – viral epidemics, racial unrests, ecological crises – were not only predicted but were already accompanying us for decades.
As for the anti-racist protests, here is how Spike Lee answered the question “Why did eight years of Obama fail to make substantial enough change to race relations in the US?”: “Very good question. But you have to understand: race relations – which have gotten worse – are a direct response to having a black president.” Why? Not because Obama was “not black enough,” but because he embodied the image of a black American advocated by the liberal Left, a black American who succeeded while fully respecting the rules of the liberal game. Protests are a brutal reply to “Now you have a black president, what more do you want?” It is our task to articulate this ”more.” Just remember that, during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, the general tendency of the last decades went smoothly on: the gap between the rich and the poor widened, big capital got stronger. In one of the episodes of ‘The Good Fight’, to follow-up series to ‘The Good Wife’, the heroine awakens in an alternate reality in which Hillary Clinton won the election in 2016, defeating Trump. But the result is paradoxical for feminism: there is no ‘Me Too’, there are no wide protests against Weinstein because moderate establishment Left feminists fear that if there is too strong a protest against male harassment of women, Clinton may lose male votes and not be re-elected, plus Weinstein is a great donor to the Clinton campaign… Did something similar not happen with Obama?
The point is not just (or primarily) that black people should be given more financial support to help their economic situation. There is a wonderful detail in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X: after Malcolm gave a speech in a college, a white female student approaches him and asks him what she can do for the black struggle for liberation; he coldly answers her, “Nothing.” And walks away… When I used this example decades ago, I was criticized for implying that we whites shouldn’t do anything to support the black struggle; but my (and, I think, Malcolm’s) point was more precise. White liberals should not act as if they will liberate the black people, they should support black people in their own struggle for liberation – treating them as autonomous agents, not as mere victims of circumstances.
So, back to our starting question: the disappearance of Greta and Bernie from our public space does not mean that they were too radical for our time of viral crisis when more unifying voices are needed. On the contrary, they were not radical enough: they did not succeed in proposing a global new vision that would re-actualize their project in the conditions of epidemics.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
"The world order as we knew it is disintegrating. Countries are cutting links with the World Health Organisation and other international bodies. They are revoking old armament agreements. Donald Trump announced his intention to use the US army on the streets of his own cities; China talks about a possible military invasion of Taiwan; Valdimir Putin says that Russia may use nuclear arms even if it’s attacked by conventional arms.
In this situation, nationalist populists were expected to seize the opportunity of the Covid-19 pandemic and change their countries into isolated fiefdoms directed against foreign enemies. But it didn’t work. Their bravados instead turned into a display of blatant impotence and incompetence.
Let’s take the three big authoritarian populists. As Angela Dewan put it: “Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro find their populist playbooks are no match for coronavirus.” (And, for that matter, neither is Boris Johnson’s, as he too plays a populist card.) “The coronavirus pandemic could have been a moment of glory for the world’s populist leaders. This is a period of heightened fear and anxiety – emotions that typically allow them to thrive. Instead, some populists are finding themselves powerless against the outbreaks ravaging their countries. The US, Russia and Brazil now have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and as their death tolls continue to rise, their economies are taking devastating blows.
Trump found himself in a special predicament when the Covid-19 crisis was coupled with the protests against the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police. The two have echoes of one another. A much higher percentage of black people are affected by police violence, and by the Covid-19 infection.
In this mess, Trump is simply out of his league, unable to impose a unifying vision, to perform the gesture of a leader in a situation which calls for a leader: a sincere description of the gravity of the situation with some kind of hope and vision.
As Robert Reich wrote: “You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed. His verbal bombshells are louder than ever, but Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States.” When he threatened, if police and National Guard could not bring calm, to send regular troops in to crush protests with its “infinite force”, he became the agent and instigator of a civil war.
But what exactly is this war?
One thing about the ongoing protests in the US is not emphasised enough, though it is absolutely crucial: there is no place for the dissatisfaction which fuels the protests within the space of the “culture war” between the liberal left and populist neo-conservatives.
The left’s stance towards the Black Lives Matter resurgence is that dignified peaceful protests must be encouraged, but there should be no extremist destructive excesses and looting. In some elementary sense that is right, of course, but it misses the true meaning of violent excess: a reaction to the fact that liberal, peaceful and gradual political change has not worked and systemic racism persists in the US. What emerges in violent protest is an anger that cannot be adequately represented in our political space.
This is also why so many representatives of the establishment, not only liberals but also conservatives, are openly critical of Trump’s aggressive stance towards the protesters. The establishment desperately wants to channel protests into the coordinates of the eternal “struggle against racism”, one of liberalism’s endless tasks. They are ready to admit that we didn’t do enough, that there is a long and difficult work ahead, just to prevent a quick radicalization of the protests, not towards even more violence but their transformation into an autonomous political movement with a platform clearly demarcated from the liberal establishment.
Violent protests are the return of the repressed of our liberal societies; a symptom which enacts what cannot be formulated in the vocabulary of liberal multiculturalism. Usually, we accuse people of just speaking, instead of doing something. These protests are the exact opposite: people act violently because they don’t have the words to express their grievance within our political structure.
To paraphrase yet again Brecht’s good old saying: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?” What is a direct racist obscenity compared to the obscenity of a liberal who practices multiculturalist tolerance in such a way that it allows him or her to retain racist prejudices?
The result is a culture which leaves a sad choice for the oppressed black citizen: either you are considered subjectively deficient (racism) or you are a product of objective circumstances (the conclusion of the politically correct liberal). How to break out of this deadlock? How to transform that blind rage into a new political subjectivity?
The first step in this direction was made by some members of the police themselves. Many police officers, including NYPD’s chief Terence Monahan, “took the knee” alongside the protesters – a practice which was introduced decades ago by American athletes when they won a gold medal and the national anthem was played at sporting events. The message of this gesture is to signal racial injustice in their own country, and since it is a sign of disrespect towards the national anthem, it means that one is not ready to fully identify oneself with the US – “this is not my country”.
No wonder the Chinese gleefully report on the protests in the US, reading them as a repetition of the Hong Kong protests. One of the main demands of the Chinese authorities was that Hong Kong should not allow disrespectful treatment of the Chinese national anthem and of other state symbols of China.
Taking the knee also has another meaning especially when it is done by those who act on behalf of the repressive apparatus of power: it is a signal of respect for the protesters, even with a touch of self-humiliation.
If we combine this meaning with the basic message – “this America, for which it is my job to act, is not my country” – we get the full meaning of the gesture: not the standard anti-Americanism, but a demand for a new beginning, for another America.
So is the US still the world’s moral leader, as CNN asked this week? No, not after Trump’s actions. But what we now see clearly is that the US never was the world’s moral leader, since to achieve that it would need a radical political renovation way beyond the left’s vision of tolerance.
In my books, I often quote an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. A German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware that all his mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code, if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.”
After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the west – the only thing unavailable is red ink.”
This is what the protest movement should look for: the “red ink” to properly formulate its message. Or, as Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark and son of the great black poet Amiri Baraka, put it, we cannot win with guns. To have a chance to win, we have to use books."
Saturday, June 20, 2020
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
After almost a decade of teaching French literature in the United States, Girard began to develop a new way of speaking about literary texts. Beyond the "uniqueness" of individual works, he looked for their common structural properties, having observed that characters in great fiction evolved in a system of relationships otherwise common to the wider generality of novels. But there was a distinction to be made:Only the great writers succeed in painting these mechanisms faithfully, without falsifying them: we have here a system of relationships that paradoxically, or rather not paradoxically at all, has less variability the greater a writer is.So there did indeed exist "psychological laws" as Proust calls them. These laws and this system are the consequences of a fundamental reality grasped by the novelists, which Girard called mimetic desire, "the mimetic character of desire." This is the content of his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961). We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. Through the object, one is drawn to the model, whom Girard calls the mediator: it is in fact the model who is sought. Girard calls desire "metaphysical" in the measure that, as soon as a desire is something more than a simple need or appetite, "all desire is a desire to be", it is an aspiration, the dream of a fullness attributed to the mediator.
Mediation is external when the mediator of the desire is socially beyond the reach of the subject or, for example, a fictional character, as in the case of Amadis de Gaula and Don Quixote. The hero lives a kind of folly that nonetheless remains optimistic. Mediation is internal when the mediator is at the same level as the subject. The mediator then transforms into a rival and an obstacle to the acquisition of the object, whose value increases as the rivalry grows. This is the universe of the novels of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky, which are particularly studied in this book.
Through their characters, our own behaviour is displayed. Everyone holds firmly to the illusion of the authenticity of one's own desires; the novelists implacably expose all the diversity of lies, dissimulations, maneuvers, and the snobbery of the Proustian heroes; these are all but "tricks of desire", which prevent one from facing the truth: envy and jealousy. These characters, desiring the being of the mediator, project upon him superhuman virtues while at the same time depreciating themselves, making him a god while making themselves slaves, in the measure that the mediator is an obstacle to them. Some, pursuing this logic, come to seek the failures that are the signs of the proximity of the ideal to which they aspire. This can manifest as a heightened experience of the universal pseudo-masochism inherent in seeking the unattainable, which can, of course, turn into sadism should the actor play this part in reverse.
This fundamental focus on mimetic desire would be pursued by Girard throughout the rest of his career. The stress on imitation in humans was not a popular subject when Girard developed his theories, but today there is independent support for his claims coming from empirical research in psychology and neuroscience (see below). Farneti (2013) also discusses the role of mimetic desire in intractable conflicts, using the case study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and referencing Girard's theory. He posits that intensified conflict is a product of the imitative behaviors of Israelis and Palestinians, entitling them "Siamese twins".
The idea that desire to possess endless material wealth was harmful to society was not new. From the New Testament verses about the love of money being the root of all evil, to Hegelian and Marxist critique that saw material wealth and capital as the mechanism of alienation of the human being both from their own humanity and their community, to Bertrand Russell's famous speech on accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, desire has been understood as a destructive force in all of literature - with the theft of Helen by Paris frequent topic of discussion by Girard. What Girard contributed to this concept is the idea that what is desired fundamentally is not the object itself, but the ontological state of the subject which possesses it, where mimicry is the aim of the competition. What Paris wanted, then, was not Helen, but to be a great king like Agamemnon. A person who desires seeks to be like the subject he imitates, through the medium of object that is possessed by the person he immitates. Girard writes:
"It is not difference that dominates the world, but the obliteration of difference by mimetic reciprocity, which itself, being truly universal, shows the relativism of perpetual difference to be an illusion.This was, and remains, a pessimistic view of human life, as it posits a paradox in the very act of seeking to unify and have peace, since the erasure of differences between people through mimicry is what creates conflict, not the differentiation itself.
Fundamental anthropology See also: Mimetic double bind and Generative anthropology
Since the mimetic rivalry that develops from the struggle for the possession of the objects is contagious, it leads to the threat of violence. Girard himself says, "If there is a normal order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis." Turning his interest towards the anthropological domain, Girard began to study anthropological literature and proposed his second great hypothesis:the scapegoat mechanism, which is at the origin of archaic religion and which he sets forth in his second book Violence and the Sacred (1972), a work on fundamental anthropology.If two individuals desire the same thing, there will soon be a third, then a fourth. This process quickly snowballs. Since from the beginning desire is aroused by the other (and not by the object) the object is soon forgotten and the mimetic conflict transforms into a general antagonism. At this stage of the crisis the antagonists will no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. They wanted to share the same object, but now they want to destroy the same enemy. So, a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back. Girard believes this to be the genesis of archaic religion, of ritual sacrifice as the repetition of the original event, of myth as an account of this event, of the taboos that forbid access to all the objects at the origin of the rivalries that degenerated into this absolutely traumatizing crisis. This religious elaboration takes place gradually over the course of the repetition of the mimetic crises whose resolution brings only a temporary peace. The elaboration of the rites and of the taboos constitutes a kind of empirical knowledge about violence.
Although explorers and anthropologists have not been able to witness events similar to these, which go back to the earliest times, indirect evidence for them abounds, such as the universality of ritual sacrifice and the innumerable myths that have been collected from the most varied peoples. If Girard's theory is true, then we will find in myths the culpability of the victim-god, depictions of the selection of the victim, and his power to beget the order that governs the group. Girard found these elements in numerous myths, beginning with that of Oedipus which he analyzed in this and later books. On this question he opposes Claude Lévi-Strauss.
The phrase "scapegoat mechanism" was not coined by Girard himself; it had been used earlier by Kenneth Burke in Permanence and Change (1935) and A Grammar of Motives (1940). However, Girard took this concept from Burke and developed it much more extensively as an interpretation of human culture.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard develops the implications of this discovery. The victimary process is the missing link between the animal world and the human world, the principle that explains the humanization of primates. It allows us to understand the need for sacrificial victims, which in turn explains the hunt which is primitively ritual, and the domestication of animals as a fortuitous result of the acclimatization of a reserve of victims, or agriculture. It shows that at the beginning of all culture is archaic religion, which Durkheim had sensed. The elaboration of the rites and taboos by proto-human or human groups would take infinitely varied forms while obeying a rigorous practical sense that we can detect: the prevention of the return of the mimetic crisis. So we can find in archaic religion the origin of all political or cultural institutions.
According to Girard, just as the theory of natural selection of species is the rational principle that explains the immense diversity of forms of life, the victimization process is the rational principle that explains the origin of the infinite diversity of cultural forms. The analogy with Charles Darwin also extends to the scientific status of the theory, as each of these presents itself as a hypothesis that is not capable of being proven experimentally, given the extreme amounts of time necessary for the production of the phenomena in question, but which imposes itself by its great explanatory power.
Origin of language
According to Girard, the origin of language is also related to scapegoating. After the first victim, after the murder of the first scapegoat, there were the first prohibitions and rituals, but these came into being before representation and language, hence before culture. And that means that "people" (perhaps not human beings) "will not start fighting again." Girard says:
If mimetic disruption comes back, our instinct will tell us to do again what the sacred has done to save us, which is to kill the scapegoat. Therefore it would be the force of substitution of immolating another victim instead of the first. But the relationship of this process with representation is not one that can be defined in a clear-cut way. This process would be one that moves towards representation of the sacred, towards definition of the ritual as ritual and prohibition as prohibition. But this process would already begin prior the representation, you see, because it is directly produced by the experience of the misunderstood scapegoat.
According to Girard, the substitution of an immolated victim for the first, is "the very first symbolic sign created by the hominids." Girard also says this is the first time that one thing represents another thing, standing in the place of this (absent) one. This substitution is the beginning of representation and language, but also the beginning of sacrifice and ritual. The genesis of language and ritual is very slow and we must imagine that there are also kinds of rituals among the animals: "It is the originary scapegoating which prolongs itself in a process which can be infinitely long in moving from, how should I say, from instinctive ritualization, instinctive prohibition, instinctive separation of the antagonists, which you already find to a certain extent in animals, towards representation."
Unlike Eric Gans, Girard does not think that there is an original scene during which there is "a sudden shift from non-representation to representation," or a sudden shift from animality to humanity. According to the French sociologist Camille Tarot, it is hard to understand how the process of representation (symbolicity, language...) actually occurs and he has called this a black box in Girard's theory.
Girard also says:One great characteristic of man is what they [the authors of the modern theory of evolution] call neoteny, the fact that the human infant is born premature, with an open skull, no hair and a total inability to fend for himself. To keep it alive, therefore, there must be some form of cultural protection, because in the world of mammals, such infants would not survive, they would be destroyed. Therefore there is a reason to believe that in the later stages of human evolution, culture and nature are in constant interaction. The first stages of this interaction must occur prior to language, but they must include forms of sacrifice and prohibition that create a space of non-violence around the mother and the children which make it possible to reach still higher stages of human development. You can postulate as many such stages as are needed. Thus, you can have a transition between ethology and anthropology which removes, I think, all philosophical postulates. The discontinuities would never be of such a nature as to demand some kind of sudden intellectual illumination.
Judeo-Christian scriptures - Biblical text as a science of man
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard discusses for the first time Christianity and the Bible. The Gospels ostensibly present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — a material re-presentation in this case — in the Eucharist. The parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer. The mythical account is usually built on the lie of the guilt of the victim in as much as it is an account of the event seen from the viewpoint of the anonymous lynchers. This ignorance is indispensable to the efficacy of the sacrificial violence.
The evangelical "good news" clearly affirms the innocence of the victim, thus becoming, by attacking ignorance, the germ of the destruction of the sacrificial order on which rests the equilibrium of societies. Already the Old Testament shows this turning inside-out of the mythic accounts with regard to the innocence of the victims (Abel, Joseph, Job…), and the Hebrews were conscious of the uniqueness of their religious tradition. With the Gospels, it is with full clarity that are unveiled these "things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35), the foundation of social order on murder, described in all its repulsive ugliness in the account of the Passion.
This revelation is even clearer because the text is a work on desire and violence, from the serpent setting alight the desire of Eve in paradise to the prodigious strength of the mimetism that brings about the denial of Peter during the Passion (Mark 14: 66–72; Luke 22:54–62). Girard reinterprets certain biblical expressions in light of his theories; for instance, he sees "scandal" (skandalon, literally, a "snare", or an "impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall") as signifying mimetic rivalry, for example Peter's denial of Jesus. No one escapes responsibility, neither the envious nor the envied: "Woe to the man through whom scandal comes" (Matthew 18:7).
The evangelical revelation contains the truth on the violence, available for two thousand years, Girard tells us. Has it put an end to the sacrificial order based on violence in the society that has claimed the gospel text as its own religious text? No, he replies, since in order for a truth to have an impact it must find a receptive listener, and people do not change that quickly. The gospel text has instead acted as a ferment that brings about the decomposition of the sacrificial order. While medieval Europe showed the face of a sacrificial society that still knew very well how to despise and ignore its victims, nonetheless the efficacy of sacrificial violence has never stopped decreasing, in the measure that ignorance receded. Here Girard sees the principle of the uniqueness and of the transformations of the Western society whose destiny today is one with that of human society as a whole.
Does the retreat of the sacrificial order mean less violence? Not at all; rather, it deprives modern societies of most of the capacity of sacrificial violence to establish temporary order. The "innocence" of the time of the ignorance is no more. On the other hand, Christianity, following the example of Judaism, has desacralized the world, making possible a utilitarian relationship with nature. Increasingly threatened by the resurgence of mimetic crises on a grand scale, the contemporary world is on one hand more quickly caught up by its guilt, and on the other hand has developed such a great technical power of destruction that it is condemned to both more and more responsibility and less and less innocence. So, for example, while empathy for victims manifests progress in the moral conscience of society, it nonetheless also takes the form of a competition among victims that threatens an escalation of violence.
Friday, June 12, 2020
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
It is really quite stunning how the U.S. media have avoided reporting on a group of activists in Seattle who have taken over part of the city surrounding the abandoned East precinct police station. No-one is being allowed inside what they are calling a “Free Capitol Hill Zone” or “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).Who doesn't think that they learned this tactic in Germany and Syria?
The activists have barricaded the streets and will not let any journalists or city officials inside their declared zone of control. The region expands across six blocks as outlined by the occupying groups. Information on the encampment AVAILABLE HERE.
According to the area activists the East precinct of the police station is called the “captured regime” (above blue). Journalist Julio Rosas tweeted photos from the ‘Zone,’ including flyers demanding that Seattle PD be defunded, and declaring that police “will always be racist because capitalism requires inequality.”
Independent journalist Andy Ngo has a great deal of familiarity with the groups assembled in the occupying effort. He describes the group in control of the area as “Antifa,” and cited tweets to suggest there were armed guards guarding entry among the occupy protestors.
SEATTLE – City authorities may be expecting the activists to disperse, but the barricades and the content of their social media suggest they intend to stay. Local businesses and residents have “agreed to disaffiliate from Seattle basically,” in the words of one activist, who called it a “flux state in the making” – a reference to an anarchist commune from the fiction series Shadowrun. (RT link)You would think the militant occupation of a major American city by a group of Antifa activists would lead to a great deal of news media coverage. However, it appears the media zeal to cover, excuse and justify the conduct of their radical Antifa allies has led to a complete black-out of coverage.
When antifa can’t achieve a full revolution, they take over a small area in leftist cities to carry out their utopian commune experiment. It ends in neighborhoods being destroyed & occupiers forcibly dispersed because of health hazards. They leave the filth behind for others. https://t.co/JWBntUW2zd— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) June 9, 2020
Seattle @MayorJenny is allowing a dangerous situation to fester. #Antifa militants have taken over & created an “autonomous zone” in city w/their own rules. Police precinct abandoned. Antifa set up barricades to create a border. Calling for volunteers to provide armed guard. pic.twitter.com/ksQI4NI5kP— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) June 9, 2020
We need more people with guns at the CHAZ— Seattle Antifa (@RainCity161) June 10, 2020
Saturday, June 6, 2020
Slavoj Zizek's 'Brutal, Dark' Formula for Saving the World
The pandemic is liable to worsen, ecological disasters loom and technological surveillance will terminate democracy. Salvation will come only by reorganizing human society. A conversation with the radical – and anxious – philosopher Slavoj Zizek
This is not an easy time for Slavoj Zizek. Quite the opposite, and he’s the first to admit it. Reoccurring panic attacks incapacitate him for hours at a time and, unlike in the past, the nights have stopped providing him with an easy escape. His sleep is wracked by nightmares of what the future holds for humanity. There are days when he fantasizes about being infected by the coronavirus. At least, that way all of the uncertainty would come to an end, or so he imagines. Finally, he would be able to cope with the virus concretely, instead of continuously being haunted by it, as some sort of a spectral entity.
Our conversation begins with him in the interviewer’s seat. “What’s happening there? How do you survive? Do you stay in the apartment? Do people go out? How is it in Israel, can you swim again?” His questions come in rapid-fire succession, and then stop as quickly and abruptly as they started, and then he apologizes: He’s worried that his anxiety won’t allow him to complete the interview. But gradually he hits his stride.
We’re speaking in the wake of the publication last month of his new book, “Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World,” which he wrote at lightning speed, in just a few weeks. It’s unmistakably Zizek: Its pages are a bag full of tricks, and provocative, as always. Still, it’s not the most impressive work he’s produced. Mirroring his state of mind, the book is a conceptual maelstrom, an unpolished sprawl of fragments of ideas, not all of which are fully developed. However, criticism along those lines is liable to miss the heart of the matter: This is an attempt by one of the leading philosophers of our time to address the broadest possible public as quickly as possible, while we are still at a crossroads.
He’s one of the very few living intellectuals who need no introduction. Still, it’s hard to refrain from describing the phenomenon that answers to the name of Slavoj Zizek. A philosopher, a cultural critic, a dynamo of ideas who loathes political correctness and bashes left and right with equal abandon. He leaps between Kant and Hegel, Freud and Lacan, deconstructing everything he encounters: historical events, political movements, theological treatises, films, symphonies, technological developments and Coca-Cola ads. This is the stuff of his charismatic solo performances in interviews, lectures, documentary films and of course his books.
He’s been tagged the “Elvis of culture theory,” “the greatest philosopher of the New Left” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.” He has plenty of advocates, but also no few critics who have wondered if he isn’t just a philosopher clown, “the Borat of the philosophers,” as one journalist once suggested. Be that as it may, in the past decade he has featured on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the world’s 100 leading thinkers. He is that rarest of phenomena: a celebrity philosopher.
Not getting it
At age 71, Zizek is currently closeted in his home in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, with his fourth wife, the Slovene writer and journalist Jela Krecic, who is three decades younger than him. During the past couple of weeks the epidemic seems to have faded in his country, with only two or three new cases being reported daily. But Zizek, who spoke to Haaretz via Skype, is in no hurry to breathe a sigh of relief.
Let’s start with how you’re feeling these days.
“Still alive. I’m so-so, depressed as always.”What is it that worries you so much?
“What worries me lately is what I would call similar mass psychological mood shifts in different places. Until just recently there was quarantine paranoia, and suddenly the atmosphere magically changed: ‘Oh, maybe it’s not so serious, maybe it’s not so bad.’ The right-wing nationalist government in Slovenia wants to score points from this, as if life should be allowed to return to normal. The prime minister, Janez Jansa, who is a close friend of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, presents himself as the father of Slovenian independence. Now his motto will be, ‘I saved Slovenia two times – from communism and from the virus.’”Sounds familiar.
“Yes, I understood something similar is happening in Israel. I think this is a dangerous moment. I detect a sinister logic behind it. It’s something like, ‘Who knows what will be in the autumn with the second wave, so let’s live the little bit of freedom we can get now.’ It’s a ‘Kill Bill’ moment, as I noted in my book.”Zizek likens the coronavirus crisis to the concluding scene in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Kill Bill: Volume 2.” During the final confrontation, the heroine strikes the evil Bill in several places, causing his heart to explode after he takes a few steps. According to Zizek, the moment that elapses between the blows and the death resembles the state of the global capitalist system now, after the blows it took at the height of the pandemic.
On the other hand, in many places the epidemic has in fact faded.
“We are more and more disoriented. There is a little good news, but at the same time there are new dimensions to the virus, and new variations that might turn out to be more dangerous. We now have this fake return to normal. The really frustrating thing is this lack of basic orientation. It’s the absence of what [the philosopher and literary critic] Fredric Jameson calls ‘cognitive mapping’ – having a general idea of the situation, where it is moving and so on. Our desire to function requires some kind of clear coordinates, but we simply, to a large extent, don’t know where we are.”You write in your new book, “There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives.” But what if the peak of the epidemic is behind us? Maybe the world won’t change so fast.
“It’s so frustrating, all these myths we desperately tried to cling to. First ‘the summer heat will make it better,’ then ‘in the fall there will be a vaccine,’ then ‘we will achieve herd immunity.’ All that is disappearing, and the virus looks like it is here to stay. What happens if there is a second wave at the same time that there’s a flu wave? We had the illusion that ‘one month of quarantine and then life will go back to normal.’ That is over, so now we’re confronting the real problem: how to build a new world in these conditions.”In his book, Zizek recalls the warnings of scientists after the SARS and Ebola epidemics. Persistently, we were told that the outbreak of a new epidemic was only a matter of time, but instead of preparing for the various scenarios we escaped into apocalypse movies. Zizek enumerates different scenarios of looming catastrophes, most of them consequences of the climate crisis, and calls for tough decisions to be made now.
In the end, all roads lead to global warming.
“I want to quote the French philosopher Bruno Latour, even though philosophically, I’m not on his side. He said that the coronavirus crisis is just a dress rehearsal for future problems that await us in the form of global warming, epidemics and other troubles. I don’t think this is necessarily a pessimistic view, it’s simply realistic. So many people have been warning us about this – there will be epidemics and ecological disasters – and now we know what it looks like. We need to stop thinking through a capitalist prism. I don’t agree with those who claim that now is no time for politics, that we should just mobilize to survive these dangers. No! Now is a great time for politics, because the world in its current form is disappearing. Scientists will just tell us, ‘If you want to play it safe, keep this level of quarantine,’ or whatever. But we have a political decision to make, and we are offered different options.”Let’s talk about what you suggest.
“What if we will need another lockdown, even longer? Or multiple lockdowns? It’s a sad prospect, but we should get ready to live in some kind of permanent state of emergency. What we should fear now is a perfect storm: a health, economic and mental health crisis. You know, Marxists like to make fun of the state mechanisms of oppression and domination, but we desperately need an efficient state apparatus. I think we’re entering a new era. This virus doesn’t mean everything is over, but we need to reorganize our social life.”What will that societal reorganization look like?
“We should focus on what is crucial, which is, first, health care. The coronavirus epidemic is a universal crisis. In the long term, states cannot preserve themselves in a safe bubble while the epidemic rages all around. We need coordinated efforts, centralized at least in some sense, and we need to get ready for long periods of infection. We shouldn’t think in terms of money when it comes to health. Materially, we have the means to organize some kind of global health care. If we don’t, our global unity is liable to disappear, and it could be the end of globalization as we know it. People will continue to die in certain places, at the same time that others try to continue functioning as isolated bubbles. Australia and New Zealand are trying to establish their own joint bubble, but I don’t think this will work. Every country has a right to protect its citizens, but it’s dangerous to see this approach as a solution, because in this way the long-term threat will remain.”What is the solution?
“Globalization today shouldn’t mean abolishing quarantines and so on, it should mean tightly coordinating procedures and helping each other. That’s the life-and-death question: Will we be able as humanity to coordinate our resources in order to confront together what looms ahead, or will this logic of bubbles continue to predominate?”Away with fashion
For starters, Zizek believes that international bodies need to be strengthened, among them the much maligned World Health Organization. In this spirit, he decided to donate all the royalties from his new book to the organization Doctors Without Borders.
“The next serious problem I see is a food shortage,” he continues. “States are aware of it and I hope they’re getting ready. At the moment, we are living off old stocks. Now it’s the spring harvest, and in Europe they have a problem. In France, for example, most of the spring harvest is done by people from other European countries, but now borders are closed. Who will do the work? The WHO is constantly warning that the pandemic could lead to mass starvation, so we need to reorganize our agriculture and food distribution.”One thing that riles Zizek is the concern being shown by many for nonessential industries. “People say we need to revitalize the economy, and I say: Forget about the economy we have now. We have to treat simply as irrelevant things like the fashion industry, the need to have a new car every two years, or whatever. It’s tragic, I know, that all kinds of big companies are in deep shit, but are they worth saving?”
In your book you suggest reinventing communism, such that it will provide a solution to all our problems, now and in the future. Can you elaborate on this?
“The formula proposed by Marx and Engels was, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’! Yes! But this will not be in the way Marx meant it, where everyone will have a comfortable life, with whatever they need, and choose their creative job and so on. My formula is much more brutal, and darker. The state should simply guarantee that nobody actually starves, and perhaps this even needs to be done on an international scale, because otherwise you will get refugees. For our part, we need to forget about cars, air travel, fashion – and everyone should give back to society according to their ability. This means, for one thing, that the state should be given a certain right to mobilize people when needed. Can you imagine any other way to solve the problems we face?”I’m not sure that idea will get much support, especially not in the individualistic West.
“I am not some evil old communist, and I don’t have any great communist dreams. We don’t need a communist party exercising tight control for this. I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean what we usually associate with 20th-century communism, or the weird hybrid forms that exist in countries such as North Korea and Cuba, or the fusion between despotic communism and brutal capitalism that is practiced in China and Vietnam. That’s why I use the expression ‘war communism,’ to describe a situation in which society is on the edge and the point is to organize a minimal, decent survival.”If we examine the new left – those who recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis and promote such ideas as universal medical insurance and a basic income for everyone – there is truly a momentum of ideas that were once considered off the wall. But it seems to me that, even so, the road to the dark communism you are proposing is still very long.
“People tell me, ‘You’re crazy, you exaggerate,’ but aren’t governments already thinking in these terms, already doing it? Look at what even Trump had to do. He gave billions to ordinary people, and despite the fact that he gave even more to save corporations, we should be aware that this is no longer capitalistic market logic; we changed the horizon and it’s difficult, it’s a risky experiment.”There was a rescue package in 2008, too, but more than a decade later capitalism is still very much alive.
“We live in a time when many things are possible and more strange things will happen. The economic problems will compel those in power to take actions that before this crisis appeared to be radically leftist measures. Even conservatives are having to do things that run against their principles. There are some radical things that only a right-winger can do – if a left-winger does them, he will be considered a traitor. Nixon made peace with China, and de Gaulle accepted Algerian independence – while the socialist government before him didn’t dare do it. Take Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un: If Obama had done it, he would have been branded a communist puppet.”That’s an argument that Israelis can relate to, because we remember that it was right-wing leaders who removed the settlements in Sinai and the Gaza Strip. On that note, do you share the view that the epidemic will serve as a cover for Israel to annex areas of the West Bank and deepen the occupation?
“Maybe I’m too much a humanist utopian, but secretly I hope that the coronavirus crisis will scare the shit out of Israelis and Palestinians and seduce them into, ‘Okay, let’s try a little bit more of collaboration and mutual help.’ I know that now, in Gaza, textile factories are working full time making masks even for Israel. In this regard I’m almost a classical liberal capitalist – ‘commerce is good,’ you know? You begin by exporting masks to Israel, who knows what can happen… I don’t expect a big peace conference, let’s begin slowly by developing commercial links, without thinking in terms of total peace or a fight to the death. Let’s say, ‘Yes, maybe there will be a point in the future when we’ll try to kill each other, but until then – why don’t we sell you some masks, you’ll sell us some water or whatever?’ I believe in short-term pragmatic gestures, which can lead to something. I’m not a complete utopian, but maybe.”The China syndrome
Although Zizek speaks of the need for a strong state, he is disturbed by the possibility that the West will follow China’s example with regard to citizen surveillance and the elimination of privacy.
“As I always said, even before the coronavirus, with all these new techniques of digital control, we’re approaching a new model. I can smell it in the air. You’re not openly controlled, you still appear to retain your personal freedoms, you order this and that food, you can do whatever you want in your own little isolated world, you can have your personal perversions. But in practice the control isn’t any less tight than in the Chinese model – maybe even more so. In China at least nobody has great democratic illusions, you know you’re tightly controlled by the party, the state apparatus and so on. The mechanisms of control in the West don’t work like that; I am very wary of the authorities’ cooperation with Google.”Perhaps you could explain your concern, because as I understand it, you’re not just talking about surveillance and the infringement of privacy.
“I’m talking about what Naomi Klein calls the ‘Screen New Deal.’ The big technology companies like Google and Microsoft, which enjoy vast government support, will enable people to maintain Telexistence. You undergo a medical examination via the web, you do your job digitally from your apartment, your apartment becomes your world. I find this vision horrific.”So those who see this change as an act of liberation are wrong?
“First, it’s class distinction at its purest. Maybe half the population, not even that, could live in this secluded way, but others will have to ensure that this digital machinery is functioning properly. Today, apart from the old working class, we have a ‘welfare working class,’ all those caregivers, educators, social workers, farmers. The dream of this program, the Screen New Deal, is that physically, at least, this class of caregivers disappears, they become as invisible as possible. Interaction with them will be increasingly reduced and be digital.”In the book you take note of the price that the privileged class, too, will pay in this situation.
"The irony here is that those who are privileged, those who, in this scenario, will be able to live in this perfect, secluded way, will also be totally controlled digitally. Their morning urine will be examined, and so on with every aspect of their life. Take the new analysis capabilities that can test you and provide results [for the coronavirus] in 10-15 minutes. I can imagine a new form of sexuality in this totally isolated world, in which I flirt with someone virtually, and then we say, ‘Okay, let’s meet in real life and test each other – if we’re both negative, we can do it.’”Perhaps above all, Zizek is uneasy about the power that will be concentrated in the hands of the few. “Can you imagine how much power will be concentrated in the hands of the digital giants when they enjoy state collaboration? As Julian Assange wrote, we will get a privately controlled combination of Google and something like the NSA. So this is another reason that I am against the Screen New Deal; they will totally control our lives, and democracy in any meaningful sense will thereby be abolished. Maybe we need some sort of mechanism to cope with the pandemic, but it should be controlled publicly and transparently, because it’s our money. That can be done.”
Zizek enunciates each syllable of that last sentence separately, as though he were speaking in the town square. Possibly he misses the period when he addressed large audiences and forgot momentarily that he was speaking with one individual.
“We can be opposed to this [monitoring] without engaging in any health risks,” he continues. “I’m not saying, ‘No control, walk in the parks freely, embrace each other and so on.’ But it’s not necessary for this system that tracks us and so on to function in this nontransparent way.”Suddenly he recalls an interview he read with the entrepreneur Elon Musk, and once again he’s fired up. “He talked about the progress being made by his company, Neuralink [which seeks to enable a direct hookup between computers and the human brain]. He said that 10 years from now we will no longer need spoken language, because we’ll have direct, brain-to-brain, computer-mediated communication. I am skeptical about the scientific feasibility of this. But I think the timing of the interview is highly significant, during the coronavirus crisis, because the tendency is the same as with the Screen New Deal: to bypass material reality, and to establish a kind of digitally mediated direct communication in the virtual universe.”
And you see this as a perverse idea.
“This is what I really fear, the combination of viral and ecological catastrophes and the subsequent self-isolation, with these escapes into a digital world, where we’re directly connected to a computer. Combine this with Neuralink and you get a Matrix-like vision of our future.”So people who may think things are bad now don’t know what’s in store for them.
“I like to use Stalin’s ridiculous answer, when he was asked which deviation was worse – right wing or left wing. He answered, ‘They are both worse.’ You know this nonsense?” Zizek asks, with rolling laughter. “So, if you ask me which way is worse, the Trump way – brutal capitalism – or the Screen New Deal, I think both are worse. As I said, the problems we’re facing are desperate, aren’t they? But excuse me for talking too much.”Screen fatigue
In his book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud referred to an enigma that troubled him deeply: Soldiers who returned wounded from World War I were more successful in processing their traumatic experiences than those who came back without a scratch. The soldiers who were physically unscathed tended to have recurring dreams about the war’s horrors. In “Pandemic!,” Zizek takes a Lacanian approach and proposes that a distinction be made between reality – the social and material space we inhabit – and the real, “a spectral entity, invisible and for that very reason appearing as all-powerful.” According to Zizek, it is only when the real becomes part of our reality – for example, in the case of infection by the virus – that it becomes “something we can deal with.”
Accordingly, Zizek divides workers during the crisis into those who encounter the virus and its consequences as part of their daily reality – medical staff, welfare-service people, farmers, the food industry – and those who are secluded in their homes, for whom the epidemic remains in the realm of the Lacanian spectral and omnipresent. Yet, both groups are condemned to weariness: the essential workers because of their high-stress work and its dangers, and the people confined to their home because of the lassitude that engulfs those who observe the end of their familiar world, as it is projected from the screens.
As for Zizek himself, his new book appears to be not only an attempt to sound his voice and be counted in the category of the essential workers, but also a personal struggle against symptoms that were observed in people who were locked down at home during the recent confinement. To a certain extent, he is already practiced in this. He opens the appendix to the book with a “personal confession”: He likes the idea of being confined to his apartment. Even when he travels, he prefers “to stay in a nice hotel room and ignore all the attractions of the place I’m visiting.” He would rather read a good essay about a famous painting than see the painting in a crowded museum. Still, “being obliged to confine myself [is] more difficult.”
“The fact that everyone is behaving like me doesn’t make it easier,” he tells me. “Paradoxically, it is even more painful and more troubling for me. In the meantime, as I warned you, I am already exhausted. You see, this is exactly my problem – I get too excited and then comes a bout of depression.”Then perhaps one last question, please. In the book you call for a philosophical revolution. What will be the future of academia in general and philosophy in particular in the brave new world that awaits us?
“I don’t know what will happen with academia. Will humanities survive and so on? Humanities professors in the United States tell me that many of their students feel that the world is falling apart, so why should they now be interested in 19th-century literature and philosophy? It’s a sad world.”Although he had wanted to conclude the conversation, Zizek gets carried away momentarily: “It sometimes makes me cry to watch old films, because they take place in a world that, at least for some time, will not be here. It’s a lost world. How will literature and cinema reinvent themselves? Will they still try to fake the old reality?”
What about philosophy?
“I think philosophical reflection will be needed, even if for no other reason than because the reality in which we’re living is dissolving. It’s no longer the same world, so people are totally at a loss. Look at what’s already happening in the United States, all this racism exploding, and of course antisemitism. Philosophy, or whatever you want to call it – reflections on the meaning of life – will have to be there to allow people to orient themselves in the new world.”
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Be they against the Covid-19 lockdown or police brutality, the protests gripping the US stem from a ‘money or life’ choice, where people are forced to choose money. The poor are victims, helping to cover up the crime against them.
Our world is gradually drowning in madness: instead of solidarity and coordinated global action against the Covid-19 threat, not only are agricultural disasters proliferating, raising the prospect of massive hunger – locusts are invading areas from Eastern Africa to Pakistan – but political violence is also exploding, often ignored by the media. How little do we read about the military border clashes between India and China, with multiple wounded?
In such a desperate age, one should be excused for escaping from time to time into good old formulaic crime series, like the British-French show ‘Death in Paradise’.
In one of the later episodes, the killer’s motive is the brutal humiliation and torment the victim had subjected him to in high school. Mortally wounded, the victim realizes what suffering he had caused, and uses the last ounce of his strength to alter the scene so that it would seem a third person had perpetrated the murder, in order to exonerate the real killer.
There is something noble in such a gesture, a trace of authentic redemption. But ideology finds a way to pervert even such noble gestures; it can compel the victim, not the criminal, to voluntarily erase any traces of the crime and present it as an act of his or her own free will. Is this not what thousands of ordinary people who demonstrate for an end to the lockdown are doing in the paradise called USA?
‘Money or life’ is not a free choice
Returning too quickly to ‘normality’, as advocated by Trump and his administration, exposes many people to the deadly threat of infection – but they nonetheless demand it, thereby covering up any traces of Trump’s (and the capital’s) crime.
In the early 19th century, many miners in Wales rejected helmets and other expensive protective equipment, even though this gear greatly reduced the possibility of deadly accidents which abounded in coal mines, because the costs were deducted from their salaries.
Today we seem to regress to the same desperate calculation, which is a new inverted version of the old forced choice ‘money or life’ (where, of course, you choose life, even if it is life in misery). If you now choose life against money, you cannot survive, since you lose money and life, so you have to return to work to earn money to survive – but the life you get is curtailed by a threat of infection and death. Trump is not guilty of killing the workers, they made a free choice – but Trump is guilty of offering them a ‘free’ choice in which the only way to survive is to risk death, and he further humiliates them by putting them in a situation whereby they must demonstrate for their ‘right’ to die at their place of work.
One should contrast these protests against the lockdown with the ongoing explosion of rage triggered by another death in the American paradise, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Although the rage of the thousands of black people protesting this act of police violence is not directly linked to the pandemic, it is easy to discern from their background the clear lesson of the Covid-19 death statistics: black and Hispanic people have a much greater chance of dying due to the virus than white Americans. The outbreak has thus brought out the very material consequences of class differences in the US: it’s not just a question of wealth and poverty, it is also quite literally a matter of life and death, both when dealing with police and when dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
And this brings us back to our starting point from ‘Death in Paradise’, to the noble gesture of the victim helping the perpetrator to erase all trace of his act – an act which was, if not justified, at least understandable as an act of despair. Yes, the black protesters are often violent, but we should show their violence a little bit of the same leniency as the victim does towards his killer in the ‘Death in Paradise’ episode.