Sunday, October 24, 2021

Here Squiddy, Squiddy, Squiddy...

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

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

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

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

Meritocracy’s promise

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

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

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

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

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

The unfairness of false meritocracy

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

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

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

Not everyone has a fair chance of winning.

The violence of true meritocracy

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Fake News

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

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Zizek Interview


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LC: Is there space for a philosophy like this?

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

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Reconciling the Theft of Enjoyment...


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

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

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

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

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

Reflections Upon the 'Other'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Thiefs of the Left's Enjoyment...

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am grateful to Colin Perrin for this citation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post inspired by the Zizek lecture below:

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


Hasta Cuando?

from Wikipedia:
In January 1959, the revolutionary group led by Fidel Castro seized La Cabaña; the defending Cuban Army unit offered no resistance and surrendered. Che Guevara used the fortress as a headquarters and military prison for several months. During his five-month tenure in that post (January 2 through June 12, 1959), Guevara oversaw the revolutionary tribunals and executions of people who had opposed the communist revolution, including former members of Buró de Represión de Actividades Comunistas, Batista's secret police.[1] There were 176 executions by Che Guevara documented for La Cabaña Fortress prison during Che’s command (January 3 to November 26, 1959)
Click "Watch on YouTube" and NOT the Play Button (above)

Friday, October 15, 2021

More Miss Information...

Cyber-CDC's Problem with Simulations... and their War Against "Miss Information"


The stakes are getting higher / World seems so dire / Walking the high wire
Fixing flat tires / And putting out fires / Before time expires
Lobbied by liars / At work in the mire / Go cue the choir
In two thousand twenties / Some people have plenty / While others are empty

How? / Miss Information / Yeah spread that thang / Sweet Miss Information

The soul of humanity / Facing calamity / No borders or boundaries
Only Light defies gravity / Fueled by morality / We are the cavalry
Intrigued by insanity / Hangin’ in galleries / Recharging my battery
Don’t try to flatter me / Can’t put me on salary / Gonna crush it with Mallory

How? / Miss Information / Aw, spread that thang / Sweet Miss Information

Gonna pick you up / Gonna spin you round / Gonna turn your whole world upside down
Gonna spread that word all over town

Hey batter batter / Mind over matter / Dull useless chatter
Be a mad hatter / Invisible dancer / Climb spiritual ladders
Love is the answer / She don’t have no master / Just Add in some laughter /
The world’s turning faster / Writing new chapters / Change or go backwards

How? / Miss Information / Aw, spread that thang / Sweet Miss Information

Gonna pick you up / Gonna spin you round / Gonna turn your whole world upside down
Gonna spread that word all over town

How? / Miss Information / Aw, spread that thang / Miss Information
Ain’t she sweet / Miss Information / My beauty queen

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Obscenity of the Day

Slavoj Žižek: Debating whether the Holocaust or colonialism was worse is obscene… both were unspeakable monstrosities
In the last months, a new ‘historikerstreit’ – a debate between historians – has exploded in Europe over the relative horrors of the Holocaust and colonialism. In my opinion, it is an argument where there can be no winner.

On one side, Achille Mbembe, Dirk Moses, and some others argue that distinguishing the Holocaust from other violent crimes in human history is Eurocentric, and neglects the horror of colonialist crimes. On the other side, Saul Friedlander, Juergen Habermas, and others insist on the unique character of the Holocaust. I think that both sides are, in some sense, right and wrong. One cannot help but repeat here Stalin’s answer to the question of which deviation is worse, leftist or rightist: “They are both worse.”

It is unquestionably true that the wider public in the developed West is not fully aware of the breathtaking horrors of colonialism and its by-products. Just remember the horror of the two Opium Wars fought by the British Empire (and others) against China. Statistics show that, until 1820, China was the strongest economy in the world. From the late 18th century, the British were exporting enormous amounts of opium into China, turning millions of people there into addicts and causing great damage. The Chinese emperor tried to prevent this, prohibiting the import of opium, and the British (together with other Western forces) intervened militarily. The result was catastrophic: soon after, China’s economy shrank by half. But what should interest us is the legitimization of this brutal military intervention; free trade is the basis of civilization, and thus the Chinese prohibition of importing opium was a barbarian threat to civilization… It’s hard to refrain from imagining a similar act today: Mexico and Colombia acting to defend their drug cartels and declaring war on the US for behaving in a non-civilized way by preventing free opium trade.

The colonial list of horrors is long… very long: Belgian Congo, regular famines with millions of dead in British India, the devastation in both Americas. The cruel irony is that, with European modernization, slavery reemerged at the very moment when, in our ideology, the central topic was freedom – the fight against the slavery of women, of workers, of citizens in authoritarian regimes. Slavery was discovered everywhere, in all metaphorical senses, but ignored where it existed in its literal sense.

Colonialism brings out what can only be designated as the catastrophe of modernity: the often terrifying impact of modernization on pre-modern communal life. Recall, for example, the fate of Attawapiskat, a remote Aboriginal community in northern Ontario, which drew the attention of the media in early 2016. A report in the Guardian exemplified the way the Canadian Aboriginal people remain a broken nation, unable to find the minimal stability of a life pattern.

“Since autumn there have been more than 100 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat, which has a population of just 2000. The youngest person to attempt suicide was 11 years old, the oldest 71. After 11 people tried to take their own lives on Saturday evening, exhausted leaders declared a state of emergency. On Monday, as officials scrambled to send crisis counsellors to the community, 20 people – including a nine-year-old – were taken to hospital after they were overheard making a suicide pact. ‘We’re crying out for help,’ said Attawapiskat chief Bruce Shisheesh. ‘Just about every night there is a suicide attempt.’”

In searching for the reasons for this toll, one should look beyond the obvious – overcrowded houses riddled with mould, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. Foremost among the systemic reasons is the devastating legacy of the residential school system which disrupted continuity between generations:
“For decades, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were carted off in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society. Rife with abuse, the schools aimed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’, as documented by a recent truth commission. Thousands of children died at these schools – the absence of dietary standards in the schools left many undernourished and vulnerable to diseases such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis – with hundreds of them hastily buried in unmarked graves next to the institutions. In nearly a third of the deaths, the government and schools did not even record the names of the students who had died.”
No wonder, then, that we are slowly learning the true story of the residential schools – we now regularly get news like the following, reported by CBS in June: “A Canadian Indigenous group said Wednesday that a search using ground-penetrating radar has found 182 human remains in unmarked graves at a site near a former Catholic Church-run residential school that housed Indigenous children taken from their families.”

To this, we should add massive sexual exploitation in residential schools run by the Church – in some cases, up to 80% of the children were abused. What adds insult to injury is that the very institution which pretends to embody morality performs such crimes, as has been found to also be the case in France. As CNN reported this week, “Members of the Catholic clergy in France sexually abused an estimated 216,000 minors over the past seven decades, according to a damning report … that said the Church had prioritized the protection of the institution over victims who were urged to stay silent.” The truly shocking aspect here is that, since many of these crimes concern paedophilic homosexuality, the very institution responsible for them is the same institution which presents itself as the harbinger of morality and leads the public campaign against homosexuality. And the sad thing is that there is no return to pre-modern normality: it is easy to discover in pre-modern societies what appears to our modern sensitivity as brutal abuses of human rights, of the rights of women and children etc.
While admitting all this, the other side emphasizes the uniqueness of the Holocaust: its goal was not just the submission of the Jews but their total annihilation, in a well-planned, modern industrial way. Jews were not a lower race in a hierarchy of races, they were seen as the absolute Other, the principle of corruption embodied. They were not an external threat, they were – to use the neologism of Jacques Lacan – ex-timate, a foreign intruder in the very heart of our civilization. That’s why they have to be annihilated, the thinking goes, if one wants to re-establish the proper order of civilizations.

But here comes my first hesitation: years ago, Etienne Balibar pointed out that, in today’s global world, the distinction between inner and external gets blurred, which is why all racisms more and more resemble anti-Semitism. Half a century ago, Huey Newton, the founder and theorist of the Black Panther Party, saw clearly the limitation of local – or national – resistance to the global reign of capital. He even made a key step further and rejected the term “decolonization” as inappropriate – one cannot fight global capitalism from the position of national unities.

Here are his statements from a unique dialogue with the Freudian psychoanalyst Erik Erikson from the 1973 book ‘In Search of Common Ground’. “We in the Black Panther Party saw that the United States was no longer a nation. It was something else; it was more than a nation. It had not only expanded its territorial boundaries, but it had expanded all of its controls as well. We called it an empire. We believe that there are no more colonies or neocolonies. If a people is colonized, it must be possible for them to decolonize and become what they formerly were."

“But what happens when the raw materials are extracted and labor is exploited within a territory dispersed over the entire globe? When the riches of the whole earth are depleted and used to feed a gigantic industrial machine in the imperialists’ home? Then the people and the economy are so integrated into the imperialist empire that it’s impossible to ‘decolonize,’ to return to the former conditions of existence. If colonies cannot ‘decolonize’ and return to their original existence as nations, then nations no longer exist. Nor, we believe, will they ever exist again.”

Is this not our predicament today, much more than in Newton’s time? Furthermore, the difference between justified critique of Israel and anti-Semitism is very ambiguous and open to manipulation. Bernard Henri-Levy claimed that the anti-Semitism of the 21st century would be “progressive” or there would be none. Brought to the end, this thesis compels us to turn around the old Marxist interpretation of anti-Semitism as a mystified or displaced anti-capitalism (instead of blaming the capitalist system, the rage is focused on a specific ethnic group accused of corrupting the system). For Henri-Levy and his partisans, today’s anti-capitalism is a disguised form of anti-Semitism. Can one imagine a more dangerous way of inciting anti-Semitism among today’s critics of capitalism?

But what we are witnessing today is a weird reversal: not an anti-Semitic critique of Israel, but anti-Semitic support of Israel. Some rightist anti-Semites support the State of Israel for three obvious reasons: if Jews go to Israel, there will be fewer Jews here in the West; in Israel, Jews will no longer be a homeless foreign group whom we cannot fully trust, they will become a normal nation-state grounded in their earth; and, last but not least, they will function there as representatives of highly developed Western values against the oriental barbarism – in short, with regard to the local Palestinian population, they will do the work of colonization. In order to get the support of Western states, Zionists themselves sometimes presented themselves as colonizers. Derek Penslar, a former professor of Israel studies at Oxford University, points out there are multiple – sometimes contradictory – ideological and political issues embedded within Zionism and Israel: “The Zionist project combines colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building. The entire twentieth century, wrapped up in one small state.”

In 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat, the founding text of Zionism: “For Europe, we will build there (in Palestine) a part of the wall against Asia, we will provide ramparts against barbarism.” Even the term “colonization” was used by early Zionists. Unfortunately, this stance rhymes strangely with a series of anti-Semites, from Reinhard Heydrich to Anders Breivik and Donald Trump. While Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, some of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic – but is this really an inconsistent stance? I often reflect on a caricature published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse: two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, one of them holding in his hands a newspaper and commenting to his friend: “Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!” This caricature turns around the standard argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel, and when today’s Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argumentation not uncannily close to its reasoning?

Remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer: he was anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since he saw in the State of Israel the first line of defense against the Muslim expansion. He even wants to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, but he wrote in his ‘Manifesto’: “There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800 000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.” His figure thus realizes the ultimate paradox of the Zionist anti-Semite – and we find the traces of this weird stance more often than one would expect. Reinhard Heydrich himself, the mastermind of the Holocaust, is quoted in ‘The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS’, as writing in 1935, “We must separate the Jews into two categories, the Zionists and the partisans of assimilation. The Zionists profess a strictly racial concept and, through emigration to Palestine, they help to build their own Jewish State… our good wishes and our official goodwill go with them.”

The clear division between the uniqueness of Jews and European colonialism thus gets complicated: Zionists themselves flirted with colonialism to gain support in the West, and anti-colonial struggle itself sometimes gets dangerously close to anti-Semitism. Enough is being written about anti-Semitism in Arab countries and among Muslims – although I support Palestinian resistance on the West Bank, I am fully aware of this fact. One should also be careful about dismissing every call to throw the Muslims out of one’s country as a case of racist Islamophobia. In Slovenia, my own country, many of the surviving folk songs talk about the horrors inflicted by Turkish invasions, and throwing the Turks out seems to me a quite legitimate endeavor.

For all these reasons, I think the entire debate about the Holocaust versus colonialism should be rejected as something profoundly obscene. The Holocaust was a unique, terrifying, mega-crime; colonialism caused an unimaginable amount of death and suffering. The only correct way to approach these two horrors is to see the fights against anti-Semitism and against colonialism as two aspects of one and the same struggle. Those who dismiss colonialism as a lesser evil are an insult to the victims of the Holocaust themselves, reducing an unheard-of horror into a bargaining chip for geopolitical games. Those who relativize the uniqueness of the Holocaust are an insult to the victims of colonization themselves. The Holocaust is not one in a series of crimes – it was unique in its own way, in the same way that modern colonization was a unique breathtaking horror done on behalf of civilizing others. They are all incomparable monstrosities that cannot and should not be reduced to mere examples.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Is the Global Economy Collapsing?

Is China running out of 40' containers and being forced to load 20' ones?
...or are they simply running out of Australian coal?

The Medium is Extra Large

Medium + Slight Difference = New Medium.  Rinse and Repeat.  Difference and Repetition (Gilles Deleuze, 1968)

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Lacan vs. Freud

Baudrillard's Paris Burning...

Jean Baudrillard, "The Pyres of Autumn"
Fifteen hundred cars had to burn in a single night and then, on a descending scale, nine hundred, five hundred, two hundred, for the daily ‘norm’ to be reached again, and people to realize that ninety cars on average are torched every night in this gentle France of ours. A sort of eternal flame, like that under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honour of the Unknown Immigrant. Known now, after a lacerating process of revision—but still in trompe l’oeil.

The French exception is no more, the ‘French model’ collapsing before our eyes. But the French can reassure themselves that it is not just theirs but the whole Western model which is disintegrating; and not just under external assault—acts of terrorism, Africans storming the barbed wire at Melilla—but also from within. The first conclusion to be drawn from the autumn riots annuls all pious official homilies. A society which is itself disintegrating has no chance of integrating its immigrants, who are at once the products and savage analysts of its decay. The harsh reality is that the rest of us, too, are faced with a crisis of identity and disinheritance; the fissures of the banlieues are merely symptoms of the dissociation of a society at odds with itself. As Hélé Béjifootnote1 has remarked, the social question of immigration is only a starker illustration of the European’s exile within his own society. Europe’s citizens are no longer integrated into ‘European’—or ‘French’—values, and can only try to palm them off on others.

‘Integration’ is the official line. But integration into what? The sorry spectacle of ‘successful’ integration—into a banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning—is that of we French ourselves. To talk of ‘integration’ in the name of some indefinable notion of France is merely to signal its lack.

It is French—more broadly, European—society which, by its very process of socialization, day by day secretes the relentless discrimination of which immigrants are the designated victims, though not the only ones. This is the change on the unequal bargain of ‘democracy’. This society faces a far harder test than any external threat: that of its own absence, its loss of reality. Soon it will be defined solely by the foreign bodies that haunt its periphery: those it has expelled, but who are now ejecting it from itself. It is their violent interpellation that reveals what has been coming apart, and so offers the possibility for awareness. If French—if European—society were to succeed in ‘integrating’ them, it would in its own eyes cease to exist.

Yet French or European discrimination is only the micro-model of a worldwide divide which, under the ironical sign of globalization, is bringing two irreconcilable universes face to face. The same analysis can be reprised at global level. International terrorism is but a symptom of the split personality of a world power at odds with itself. As to finding a solution, the same delusion applies at every level, from the banlieues to the House of Islam: the fantasy that raising the rest of the world to Western living standards will settle matters. The fracture is far deeper than that. Even if the assembled Western powers really wanted to close it—which there is every reason to doubt—they could not. The very mechanisms of their own survival and superiority would prevent them; mechanisms which, through all the pious talk of universal values, serve only to reinforce Western power and so to foment the threat of a coalition of forces that dream of destroying it.

But France, or Europe, no longer has the initiative. It no longer controls events, as it did for centuries, but is at the mercy of a succession of unforeseeable blow-backs. Those who deplore the ideological bankruptcy of the West should recall that ‘God smiles at those he sees denouncing evils of which they are the cause’. If the explosion of the banlieues is thus directly linked to the world situation, it is also—a fact which is strangely never discussed—connected to another recent episode, solicitously occluded and misrepresented in just the same way: the No in the eu Constitutional referendum. Those who voted No without really knowing why—perhaps simply because they did not wish to play the game into which they had so often been trapped; because they too refused to be integrated into the wondrous Yes of a ‘ready for occupancy’ Europe—their No was the voice of those jettisoned by the system of representation: exiles too, like the immigrants themselves, from the process of socialization. There was the same recklessness, the same irresponsibility in the act of scuppering the eu as in the young immigrants’ burning of their own neighbourhoods, their own schools; like the blacks in Watts and Detroit in the 1960s. Many now live, culturally and politically, as immigrants in a country which can no longer offer them a definition of national belonging. They are disaffiliated, as Robert Castelfootnote2 has put it.

But it is a short step from disaffiliation to desafío—defiance. All the excluded, the disaffiliated, whether from the banlieues, immigrants or ‘native-born’, at one point or another turn their disaffiliation into defiance and go onto the offensive. It is their only way to stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in hand. In the wake of the November fires, mainstream political sociology spoke of integration, employment, security. I am not so sure that the rioters want to be reintegrated on these lines. Perhaps they consider the French way of life with the same condescension or indifference with which it views theirs. Perhaps they prefer to see cars burning than to dream of one day driving them. Perhaps their reaction to an over-calculated solicitude would instinctively be the same as to exclusion and repression.

The superiority of Western culture is sustained only by the desire of the rest of the world to join it. When there is the least sign of refusal, the slightest ebbing of that desire, the West loses its seductive appeal in its own eyes. Today it is precisely the ‘best’ it has to offer—cars, schools, shopping centres—that are torched and ransacked. Even nursery schools: the very tools through which the car-burners were to be integrated and mothered. ‘Screw your mother’ might be their organizing slogan. And the more there are attempts to ‘mother’ them, the more they will. Of course, nothing will prevent our enlightened politicians and intellectuals from considering the autumn riots as minor incidents on the road to a democratic reconciliation of all cultures. Everything indicates that on the contrary, they are successive phases of a revolt whose end is not in sight.

1[Tunisian writer, author of L’Imposture culturelle (1997).]

2[Sociologist, author of L’Insécurité sociale (2003).]

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Les Non-Dupes Errant

-Slavoj Zizek, "Les Non-Dupes Errant"
We are witnessing lately a gradual decay of the authority of what Jacques Lacan called “the big Other,” the shared space of public values within which only our differences and identities can thrive. This phenomenon is often falsely characterized as the “post-truth era.” Liberal resistances against vaccination on behalf of human rights make one nostalgic for Leninist “democratic socialism” (free democratic debate, but once a decision is taken, everybody has to obey it). One should interpret this democratic socialism in the sense of Kant’s formula of Enlightenment: not “Don’t obey, think freely!” but: “Think freely, state your thoughts publicly, and obey!” The same holds for vaccine doubters: debate, publish your doubts, but obey regulations once public authorities impose them. Without such practical consensus we will slowly drift into a society composed of tribal factions.

Here we can see clearly the link between individual freedom and social cohesion. The freedom to choose being vaccinated or not is, of course, a formal kind of freedom; however, to reject vaccination effectively implies limiting my actual freedom as well as the freedom of others. Within a community, being vaccinated means that I am a much less of a threat to others (and others are to me), so I can to a much greater degree exercise my social freedoms to mix with others in the usual way. My freedom is only actual as freedom within a certain social space regulated by rules and prohibitions. I can walk freely along a busy street because I can be reasonably sure that others on the street will behave in a civilized way towards me, will be punished if they attack me, if they insult me, etc.—and it is exactly the same with vaccination. No doubt, we can strive to change the rules of common life, as there are situations when these rules can be relaxed and also strengthened (as in the conditions of a pandemic), but a domain of rules is needed as the very terrain of our freedoms.

Therein resides the Hegelian difference between abstract and concrete freedom: in a concrete life-world, abstract freedom changes into its opposite, since it narrows our actual exercise of freedom. Let’s take the case of freedom to speak and communicate with others. I can only exert this freedom if I obey the commonly established rules of language (with all their ambiguities, including the unwritten rules of messages between the lines). The language we speak is not ideologically neutral; it embodies many prejudices and makes it impossible for us to formulate clearly certain uncommon thoughts. As, again, Hegel knew it, thinking always occurs in language and it brings with itself a common-sense metaphysics (view of reality), but to truly think, we have to think in a language against this language. The rules of language can be changed in order to open up new freedoms, but the trouble with Politically Correct newspeak clearly shows that direct imposition of new rules can lead to ambiguous results and give birth to new, more subtle forms of racism and sexism.

The disintegration of the public space is at its worst in the US, and it can be nicely illustrated by a detail of common culture. In Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as 0, so that the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. In short, Americans start to count with 1, while Europeans know that 1 is already a stand-in for 0. Or, to put it in more historical terms, Europeans are aware that, prior to beginning a count, there has to be a ‘ground’ of tradition, a ground which is always-already given and, as such, cannot be counted, while the US, a land with no pre-modern historical tradition proper, lacks such a ground. Things begin there directly with the self-legislated freedom: the past is erased or transposed onto Europe.[i] Perhaps, we should thus begin by assuming again the lesson of Europe and learn to count from 0… Should we, really? The catch is that 0 is never neutral; it is the shared space of ideological hegemony traversed by inherent antagonisms and inconsistencies. Even the “post-truth” space of rumors is still a form of the big Other, just different from the big Other of dignified public space. So, we have to put our claim in a more specific and precise way: ignoring the ground floor obfuscates an even stronger form of the big Other.

Some Lacanians (Jacques-Alain Miller included) often advocate the idea that today, in the era of “fake news,” the big Other really no longer exists. Is this true? What if it exists more than ever, just in a new form? Our big Other is no longer public space, distinguished from the obscenities of private exchanges, but the very public domain in which “fake news” circulate, in which we exchange rumors and conspiracy theories. One should not lose sight of what is so surprising about this rise of the shameless obscenity of Alt-right so well noted and analyzed by Angela Nagle.[ii] Traditionally (in our retroactive view of tradition, at least), shameless public obscenity worked as subversive, as an undermining of traditional domination, as depriving the Master of his false dignity. What we are getting today, with the exploding public obscenity, is not the disappearance of domination, of Master figures, but its forceful reappearance.[iii]

In this more precise sense, the US is today the country of the new obscene big Other: the 0 that they more and more lack is the 0 of public dignity, of a shared commitment. Furthermore, this obscene big Other is supplemented, though often in a conflictual way, by the big Other of neutral expertise in its different forms—state apparatuses, legal order, science. And here the true problem emerges: can we trust this big Other, even in its scientific form? Is science not caught in the procedures of technological domination and exploitation, and of capitalist interests? Didn’t science long ago lose its neutrality? Is this neutrality from the very beginning not a mask of social domination? Does this insight not compel us to problematize the medical-scientific justification of lockdown measures and other reactions to the pandemic?

The most consequent partisan of Marxist Covid-skepticism is Fabio Vighi, who argues that, if we join the dots provided by a close analysis of the financial background of the pandemic, we “might see a well-defined narrative outline emerge”:

“lockdowns and the global suspension of economic transactions were intended to 1) allow the Fed to flood the ailing financial markets with freshly printed money while deferring hyperinflation; and 2) introduce mass vaccination programs and health passports as pillars of a neo-feudal regime of capitalist accumulation. /…/ The mainstream narrative should therefore be reversed: the stock market did not collapse (in March 2020) because lockdowns had to be imposed; rather, lockdowns had to be imposed because financial markets were collapsing. /…/ SARS-CoV-2 is the name of a special weapon of psychological warfare that was deployed in the moment of greatest need. /…/ The aim of the printing-spree was to plug calamitous liquidity gaps. Most of this ‘magic-tree money’ is still frozen inside the shadow banking system, the stock exchanges, and various virtual currency schemes that are not meant to be used for spending and investment. Their function is solely to provide cheap loans for financial speculation. This is what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’, which continues to expand in an orbital loop that is now completely independent of economic cycles on the ground. The bottom line is that all this cash cannot be allowed to flood the real economy, for the latter would overheat and trigger hyperinflation.”

In short, it is not the pandemic that put the capitalist order into an emergency state; it is global capitalism itself that needed an emergency state to avoid a debilitating crisis much stronger than the 2008 meltdown, and the pandemic was fabricated as a welcome excuse for the emergency state. In contrast to Agamben, who focused on how the pandemic justified the permanent state of emergency with an unheard-of strengthening of biopolitics, Vighi puts forward capital’s reproduction. The passage from neoliberal global capitalism to corporate neo-feudal capitalism is the basic process that uses historical contingencies as excuses, and Vighi is not afraid to add to this series of excuses ecologically-grounded lockdowns. Far from just confronting capitalism with its fateful limitations, ecological crises can and will also be used as a scientifically based way to discipline and control the population. “Green capitalism” is not just a humanitarian mask of the global order; it is also a way for big corporate capital to control small capital.

Vighi takes into account the complexity of the situation: the interests of pharmaceutic corporations, the way expert “scientific” insights that justify anti-pandemic measures consolidate new forms of social control and regulation, which discipline the behavior of the population, etc. His line of argumentation contains many perspicuous insights, and the basic premise of his economic analysis hits the mark. As already Yanis Varoufakis noted, an important indication of the new phase of capitalism was the weird fact that took place in the Spring of 2020: on the same day that state statistics in the US and the UK registered a breathtaking fall of the GDP, comparable to the fall at the time of the Great Recession, stock markets registered a gigantic rise. In short, although “real” economy is stagnating or even contracting, stock markets go up in an indication that fictitious financial capital is caught in its own circle, decoupled from “real” economy. This is where financial measures justified by the pandemic entered the game: they, in a way, turned around the traditional Keynesian procedure, i.e., their aim was not to help “real” economy but to invest enormous amounts of money into the financial sphere (to prevent a financial collapse like the one of 2008) while making sure that most of this money would not flow into “real” economy (this could cause hyperinflation).

The moments of economic growth during the pandemic also exemplify what Leftist economists call the “Lauderdale paradox”: individual private riches are enhanced at the expense of the common wealth. The most precious wealth of a society consists of objects that are freely available, like water or air, but they do not count as values making you rich. If water is easily available, nobody gets rich through it; if its supply is controlled by private companies, those who own these companies get rich. So, in a technical sense of wealth as embodied in values, there is more wealth in a society where you pay for water since freely available water doesn’t count as wealth. This example gained additional actuality today when the privatization of water is on the neoliberal agenda: the owners of water supply and utility companies get richer, while the mass of those who need water get poorer…The same goes for air: if, due to worsening air pollution, we need oxygen to breath normally, our society will in a formal sense get much richer and a new profitable industry will emerge. Does the same not hold for the pandemic? There was an enormous rise of production in pharma-industry, not just vaccines but also masks, medical instruments, etc., which formally count as economic growth, even though they make actual people poorer. And one can be sure that global warming will generate even more of such “economic growth.”

I thus highly appreciate Vighi’s work, but what I find problematic is his inverted causality. As we can see in the passages quoted above, instead of the “official” story of the pandemic triggering lockdowns and other health measures, he makes the needs of the capital into the determining agent which uses (or, according to some of his formulations, even directly produces) the pandemic in order to justify lockdown measures. Especially when he adds to the elements justifying lockdowns ecological crises, I think he proceeds too fast. The pandemic is not a fake invention or an exaggeration of the danger posed by a version of the flu; the danger is real, measures against it have to be taken. Science that investigates it is not a science in quotation marks, but actual science. Science and the measures proposed by health authorities are, of course, twisted by corporate interests and by the interests of social control and domination, but therein, precisely, resides the problem: the only agencies we have to fight a real threat are kidnapped and twisted by the establishment, which is what makes the situation so tragic. So, we are blackmailed in the real: yes, the enforced measures are twisted, but they are the only thing we have, and we cannot ignore them. What we cannot do is precisely the step implicitly advocated by Vighi, namely break out of the spell of the official narrative, which justifies emergency measures, and return to our everyday normality.

To perceive such a catastrophic by-product of capitalism as an aspect of a larger-than-life plan comes too close to a paranoiac construct. It presupposes that China is somehow, despite all its geopolitical and economic conflicts with the West, part of the same capitalist mega-plot. It presupposes that science in many different countries is easily manipulated by establishment. Vighi’s critique of the predominant notion of the pandemic is, however, resolutely not paranoiac: he remains firmly within rational reasoning, even if he comes dangerously close to such a position.

In what, then, does the difference between conspiracy theories and critical thinking reside? Although both begin by the distrust of official ideology, conspiracy theories make a fateful step further not (just) in the sense of manipulating facts, but at a very formal level. Recall Lacan’s claim (to which I often refer) about jealousy. If what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological: the pathological elements is the husband’s need for jealousy as the only way to retain his dignity, identity even. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls…) – which they are not, of course –, their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) a pathological phenomenon because it repressed the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. In the Nazi vision, their society is an organic Whole of harmonious collaboration, so an external intruder is needed to account for divisions and antagonisms. The same holds for how, today, anti-immigrant populists deal with the “problem” of the refugees: they approach it in the atmosphere of fear, of the coming struggle against the islamicization of Europe, and they get caught in a series of obvious absurdities.

In her yet unpublished manuscript “A Short Essay on Conspiracy Theories,” Alenka Zupančič perspicuously applies this formula to conspiracy theories: “even though some conspiracies really exist, there is still something pathological that pertains to conspiracy theories, some surplus investment that is not reducible to these or those facts.” She identifies three interconnected features of this pathology. First, conspiracy theories are “inherently connected with enjoyment – connected with what Lacan called jouis-sens (a world play with jouissance [enjoyment]), ‘enjoy-meant’ or the enjoyment of meaning”: Covid-skeptics like to claim that they just want a free debate, a readiness to listen to all sides and to make their own mind, against the dogmatism of experts and science in the service of the establishment. They begin with skepticism, doubting all official theories, but then they (almost magically) abolish this doubt by way of providing a unified total explanation – and this overcoming of doubt by a total explanation, the meaning of it all, provides an immense surplus-enjoyment.

This brings us to the second feature. The common perception that conspiracy theories are part of our relativist post-truth era when each group promotes its own subjective truth is simply wrong; conspiracy theories fanatically believe in Truth, “they take the category of truth very seriously. They believe that there is Truth; they are just convinced that this truth is different or other than the official one.” The third feature (which makes conspiracy theories totally at odds with Marxism) is that this Truth is not just an objective social process but a conspiracy, a plot of an active all-powerful agent whose main goal is to deceive us, a “subject supposed to deceive (us)” behind the apparent chaos (to add yet another variation on Lacan’s notion of “subject supposed to know”). As Zupančič notes, there is a kind of theology of an evil god at work here:

“we are basically dealing with a desperate attempt to preserve the agency of the big Other in the times of its disintegration into a generalized relativism, an attempt that can succeed only at the price of moving the big Other to the zone of malevolence and evil? The consistency of the big Other (its not being ‘barred’) can no longer manifest itself in anything else but in the Other successfully deceiving us. A consistent big Other can only be a big Deceiver (a big Fraud or Cheat), an evil Other. A consistent God can only be an evil God; nothing else adds up. Yet, better an evil God than no God.”

Only in its extreme Stalinist version did Marxism act like this: the presupposition of the Stalinist purges was that there existed one big reactionary plot that united all those who opposed the Stalinist party line. But cracks immediately appear in this edifice: the abolished uncertainty returns in the way, in which “dogmatic” conspiracy theories are as a rule inconsistent and follow the logic of the joke of the borrowed kettle evoked by Freud: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments confirms by negation what it endeavors to deny – that I returned your kettle broken… In the case of Covid-skeptics, they also effortlessly combine a series of contradictory claims: there is no virus causing Covid; this virus was created on purpose (to diminish population, to fortify control over people, to boost capitalist economy…); it is a natural disease much milder than the media say; vaccines are more dangerous than the virus…

In this strange paranoiac world, Trump is saying the truth, while Greta Thunberg is an agent of big capital… I personally know people who died of Covid; I know researchers who are analyzing the virus from different perspectives, including the medical, the statistical, etc.; I know their doubts and limitations, which they openly confess and which are part of their scientific approach. For them, trust in science is the very opposite of dogmatic orthodoxy: it is trust in an exploration, which is constantly progressing.

For all these reasons, I think that the idea of a mega-plot in the service of capital is infinitely less believable than the idea of the brutal reality of the pandemic as a contingent event deftly exploited by the establishment, but in a way that is in itself contradictory. The pandemic, which obviously calls for greater cooperation and social coordination, at the same time triggers a defensive reaction of capital, the reaction, which comes second and is an attempt to control the damage. I find especially problematic the idea that an ecological threat has a similar status of being invented, or at least exaggerated, to strengthen the emerging neo-feudal capitalism. Global warming is a traumatic real, which calls for the socialization of economy; the largely predominant tendency of the capitalist establishment is to downplay the threat, and the fact that it is (in a very limited way) astutely used by the global order is a limited, secondary fact.

Another moment that should draw our attention is how, at the beginning of 2020, Covid all of a sudden exploded into a central topic in our media, eclipsing all other illnesses and even political news, despite the fact that other illnesses and misfortunes were causing much more suffering and deaths. Now, infection rates are still very high, but there are less lockdowns and other defensive measures. The model here is the United Kingdom, which abandoned all regulations of public life and shifted responsibility to the individuals themselves. (In this way, the government returned to us our freedom with a price-tag: we ourselves are guilty for infections…). The media call this “learning to live with Covid.” Can this shift, which is obviously out of sync with the reality of the pandemic, be accounted for by the claim that the establishment decided we can return to a limited normality since the lockdown has already played its economic and social role, while social control is well entrenched? The weird normality we are entering into now could be much better explained by crowd psychology: in traumatic situations, the temporality of the reaction does not follow reality, people get exhausted by the permanent emergency state, and tired indifference begins to predominate.

But one has to make a further step here. Panic, as well as its opposite, tiredness and indifference, are not just categories of psychic life; they can only emerge (in the form they are taking today) as moments in the social process of change in the status of the big Other. A year and a half ago we were in a panic because of the disintegration of the big Other that we could share and trust: there was no authority able to provide a global cognitive mapping of the situation. The importance of this dimension of shifts in the mode of symbolic production was neglected already by Marx: to fight the pandemic and global warming, a new big Other, a new space of solidarity grounded in science and emancipation, is needed.

In ongoing struggles and conflicts, it is crucial to make the right choice. To characterize an epoch is to ask not what unites it, but what division defines it, the “difference that makes difference.” Advocates of the idea that class struggle is out often claim that today’s big division is a new one, say, between liberal establishment and populist resistance. For Jean-Claude Milner, the division that replaced class struggle is the one between Zionism and anti-Semitism, and it appears that these days, towards the end of 2021, the division that matters, at least in the developed world, is the one between partisans of anti-pandemic measures and those who resist them. It is precisely at this point that we should insist on the primacy of class struggle as the factor which “in the last instance” determines the whole. With anti-Semitism, this link is clear: anti-Semitism is distorted anti-capitalism, it “naturalizes” capitalist profiteering and exploitation in the figure of “the Jew,” an external intruder who brings antagonism into social body. But what if the same goes for Covid-deniers and skeptics? Are Covid-denying conspiracy theories not vaguely similar to anti-Semitic theories, at least in their Rightist-populist version, where anti-capitalism is displaced onto the distrust of science as serving the financial-corporate-medical establishment? In both cases, it is crucial to draw the line of distinction between a basic antagonism and its ideological displacement.

The conflict between Covid-skeptics and advocates of anti-pandemic measures cannot, therefore, be directly translated into our basic political struggle, so that even a radical Leftist has to make a choice. On September 9, 2021, Biden announced “policies requiring most federal employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations and pushing large employers to their workers inoculated or tested weekly. These new measures will apply to about two-thirds of all U.S. employees. ‘We’ve been patient,’ Biden told the tens of millions of Americans who have declined to get coronavirus shots. ‘But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.’” Is this a move destined to assert state control over individuals and to foster the interests of big capital? No: I “naively” accept that it will help millions.

Vighi takes the side of Agamben who, in an interview attached to his collection of texts on the pandemic Where are we now?[iv], replied to the critical observation that, in his opposition to lockdown measures, he comes close to Trump and Bolsonaro, with the claim that a truth is a truth whether articulated by the Right or by the Left. Agamben ignores the tension between truth and knowledge: yes, a piece of knowledge (truth in the sense of adequately rendering a particular fact) is a piece of knowledge, but the horizon of meaning, in which it is inserted, can give a totally different spin to this piece of knowledge. In the fact that there were many Jews among art critics in Germany around 1930 resonates a different “truth” if we mean it as a confirmation that Jews have a great sensibility for art, or if we mean it as a confirmation that Jews control our artistic production and push it in the direction of “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art).

Although Vighi endeavors to do precisely this, namely to discern social truth beneath the medical knowledge that justifies measures against the pandemic, he ignores the complex social and material background of the pandemic. The circular movement of capitalist self-reproduction occurs at three interconnected levels: the speculative dance of capital itself; the social implications of this dance (distribution of wealth and poverty, exploitation, dissolution of social links); the material process of production and exploitation of our environment, which affects our entire life-world and culminates in “Capitalocene” as a new geological era of the Earth. The other side of the mad dance of fictitious capital, which ignores reality, is the real of the immense heaps of plastic trash, of forest fires and global warming, of poisonous pollution of hundreds of millions of people.

The moment we take this third level fully into account, we can see how the pandemic and global warming emerge as the material product of global capitalist economy. Yes, capitalism did produce the pandemic and the ecological threat, albeit not as part of a brutal tactic to survive its own crisis, but as a result of its immanent contradictions. The best formula to characterize Covid-skeptics is, therefore, Lacan’s les non-dupes errent (those who are not duped err most).[v] Skeptics who distrust the public narrative of a catastrophe (pandemic, global warming…) and see a deeper plot in it err the most, missing the actual process that gave birth to it. Vighi is, thus, all too optimistic: there is no need to invent pandemics and weather catastrophes, since the system produces them by itself.


[i] I’ve dealt with this more in detail in my part of The Monstrosity of Christ (co-written with John Millbank), Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2009.

[ii] See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies, New York: Zero Books 2017.

[iii] I’ve dealt with this new figure of the big Other more in detail in Pandemic 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost, Cambridge: Polity Press 2021.

[iv] See Giorgio Agamben, Where are we now?, London: Eris 2021.

[v] I owe to Russell Sbriglia (private conversation) the idea to use this formula of Lacan to characterize the Covid-skeptics.