And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Liberal Taliban...

Slavoj Zizek, "Can the Taliban have anything in common with ‘political correctness’? Surprisingly, there is one thing..."
There’s a surprising similarity between the Taliban’s stance on protecting women from their soldiers’ aggressiveness and the politically correct vision on the protection of women from sexual assaults causing delayed traumas.

The Taliban has suddenly changed its stance toward women in public and working places. Their spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said at a news conference on Tuesday that working women should stay at home for their own safety, undermining the Taliban's efforts to convince international observers that the group would be more tolerant toward women than when they were in power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

Mujahid added that the guidance would be temporary, and would allow the Taliban to find ways to ensure that women are not “treated in a disrespectful way” or “God forbid, hurt.” He also said that the measure was necessary as the Taliban's soldiers “keep changing and are not trained.” This is why, he said, the new Afghan government asked women “to take time off from work until the situation gets back to a normal order and women related procedures are in place, then they can return to their jobs once it's announced.”

The predictable Western reaction to this statement was that we now see how false and hypocritical the Taliban's assurance that women’s rights to education and work will be respected: now they are showing their true colors...

But the reality is more complex.

We don’t need direct accusations of lies and hypocrisy to understand the shift in the Taliban’s position.

The soft attitude toward rape in Muslim countries is based on the premise that a man who raped a woman was secretly seduced (provoked) by her into doing it. Such a reading of male rape as the result of a woman's ‘provocation’ is often reported by the media.

Here we stumble upon what I take the risk to call ‘the ideological unconscious’: an ideological edifice implies and relies on a set of claims which are necessary for its functioning, but which should not be stated publicly.

Back in 2006, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric, caused a scandal when he compared women not wearing a scarf to raw meat. Reportedly, his comment was made shortly after a group of Muslim men were jailed for gang rape in Sydney.

“If you take uncovered meat and place it outside on the street…and the cats come and eat it… whose fault is it – the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem,” he said.

The explosively-scandalous nature of this comparison distracted attention from another, much more surprising, premise underlying al-Hilali’s argument: if women are held responsible for the sexual conduct of men, does this not imply that men are totally helpless when faced with what they perceive as a sexual provocation, that they are simply unable to resist it, that they are totally enslaved to their sexual hunger, precisely like a cat when it sees raw meat?

In contrast to this presumption of the complete lack of male responsibility for their own sexual conduct, the emphasis on public female eroticism in the West relies on the premise that men are capable of sexual restraint, that they are not blind slaves to their sexual drives.

In a debate years ago, an Australian Muslim woman emphatically claimed that Islam is the most feminist of all religions. Now we can understand why: Islam – at least in its fundamentalist version – is obsessed with the idea of protecting women. But protecting them from what? From aggressive men? Beneath this public justification it is easy to discover its (mostly) hidden truth: not from men – the true fear is that a woman might enjoy being sexually ‘mistreated’ and used by men. Beneath the desire to protect and control women, there is thus lurking a much more ambiguous mixture of panicky fear and of the deep distrust of the moral composure of men themselves.

Is all this simply a remainder of the oppressive Muslim tradition?

Reading about life in Kabul these days one should take a minute to look at some of the images from Afghanistan’s capital in the ‘60s and ‘70s that are easy to find on the internet. We see young women there walking around in miniskirts, modern record stores, dancing clubs, university halls full of women, etc. Yes, there were conservative Muslim communities in the countryside, but they peacefully coexisted with other religions and with elements of contemporary secular culture. There is no direct continuity between this past and the Taliban: precisely in what appears as its most ‘archaic’ features (very narrow interpretation of Sharia, using state power to prohibit modern secular life like playing music in public), the Taliban is a product of modernity, a reaction to the enforced modernization of Afghanistan first by the Soviet and then by the Western occupations.

The ultimate proof of this secret link between the Taliban and modernity is the surprising similarity between the militant group’s stance on protecting women from male aggressiveness and the politically correct vision of women threatened by male aggressiveness which can cause life-long delayed traumas even if it wasn’t directly experienced as traumatic. This vision elevates sexual experience into the ultimate trauma, talking about “sexual assault survivors who hide their trauma – even from themselves.” How, then, can such a brutal act as rape be unacknowledged, i.e., not experienced as what it is?

It happens when, during a sexual encounter, “deep down I knew that what had happened had felt violating, degrading and not what I signed up for… Yet it took me a whole decade to realise what had really happened: I had been sexually assaulted.”

Why did it take such a long time, till the rise of #MeToo movement, to get it was a sexual assault? “My limited understanding of consent and sexual violence at that time, and my overall sexual inexperience, meant I believed I was to blame for what had happened, that perhaps I just didn’t know ‘how sex usually is.’” Only when, more than a decade later, a therapist said “that’s trauma,” hearing these words “gave me permission to feel the weight of what I had endured at 19, to understand why anxiety lurked close to the surface of my body. A voice inside my head finally said: ‘That was sexual assault.’ At 33, I know that now.” So “it can take years – sometimes decades – for some survivors to realise or accept that their experience amounts to sexual assault or rape.”

Such things definitely happen: it is easy to imagine a young woman who feels uneasy and abused in sex, but dismisses this experience as the result of her naive notion of what sex is – under the influence of prevailing ideology, she decides to endure her suffering. So we should not denounce the idea that a trauma can be recognized a decade later as a ridiculous PC retroactive projection. When new higher standards of what women’s rights and freedoms become the norm, we have the full right to read past events through this new frame. One should absolutely reject false historicism here, the idea that, in previous eras, oppression of women, racism and slavery were considered normal and we should not judge them by today’s standards.

There are nonetheless some further observations to be added here.

First, the case described above is not a case of repression in the strict Freudian sense: it is a fully conscious feeling of disgust and humiliation kept at bay because of (male chauvinist) social values. So what would or could be really repressed and traumatic here? The most obvious answer is: the exact opposite, i.e., the true trauma was that the woman secretly enjoyed being mistreated, and was absolutely not ready to admit it. Her being disgusted and feeling humiliated was already fake, a cover destined to obfuscate this disavowed enjoyment, a fact much more traumatic than her mistreatment by the sexual partner. To avoid a misunderstanding: this in no way implies that the man’s mishandling was justified (since the woman enjoyed it, so ‘she got what she wanted’) – quite the opposite. We all have secret dirty fantasies, and perhaps the most humiliating experience is to get what we secretly dream about brutally imposed from outside. This is why – an extreme example – a woman who secretly dreams about being raped will be much more traumatized when raped in reality than a strong autonomous woman.

These paradoxes already indicate the way emancipation should take place. Men should not be portrayed as brutal oppressors but as weak beings whose macho exterior covers up their frailty and impotence. And women should learn to treat men like that. A strong man is the only true feminist – he doesn’t need to oppress women in order to assert himself.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Bureaucrat...


… I believe I can see the future
'Cause I repeat the same routine
I think I used to have a purpose
Then again, that might have been a dream 
… I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound
And I just do what I've been told
I really don't want them to come around, oh no 
… Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same 
… I can feel their eyes are watching
In case I lose myself again
Sometimes I think I'm happy here
Sometimes, yet I still pretend 
… I can't remember how this got started
But I can tell you exactly how it will end 
… Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same 
… I'm writing on a little piece of paper
I'm hoping someday I might find
Well I'll hide it behind something
They wont look behind 
… I am still inside here
A little bit comes bleeding through
I wish this could've been any other way
But I just don't know, I don't know
What else I can do 
… Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same 
Every day is exactly the same
Every day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain
Every day is exactly the same

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Contra Zizek


Žižek's contention, that the Taliban represents the Freudian "repressed" in collective form, seeking to challenge the hegemony of the west, is miserably out of place.

The Slovenian Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, in his characteristic combative mode, raised arguments against “the liberal Western view” in his rather animated assessment of the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Žižek feels that, to view the Taliban takeover in terms of terror and faith is reductive and not enough to grasp the political nature of the power that the Taliban represents, in real terms. Žižek identifies a “more complex and realistic” explanation of the takeover: ongoing war and corruption.

Žižek thought that there was a widespread “belief” that preferred Sharia law and oppression for the sake of safety and order. Are the countless people who desperately clung on to a US cargo plane and risked their lives; those protesting in the streets of Jalalabad, Asadabad, Panjshir Valley and Kabul; the families, women and children who openly fear for their lives and their future, also part of this “belief” network? Or do they fall outside Žižek’s category of belief-ridden people?

Žižek thinks it is too “traumatic” for the western liberal to consider – or engage with – the idea of faith as martyrdom. He thinks the power of faith behind the Taliban is not well enough understood by liberals as they treat the idea of faith as something ‘external’ to the political actors. Faith, in its liberal understanding, is simply understood in terms of God’s commandment. Žižek extends the meaning of faith, in the Taliban’s case, to something that does not merely lie in the sphere of convictions. The “material power” behind the Taliban’s ideology/faith is the physical embodiment of faith in the name of which one can sacrifice one’s life and body.

In other words, Žižek argues that, for the Taliban, faith is not merely a matter of choice but a matter of being. That is what grants these gun-toting thugs, Žižek believes, an ontological authenticity (and justification). But the Taliban isn’t special because its members are ready to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of a belief. All national armies are ready to die for their quasi-secular beliefs. What is more disturbing – yet not unique – is that they want to take the lives of others in the name of that belief. There is no matter of being that can escape the matter of (its relation to) the other. The ontological cannot escape the test of the ethical. That is why the Taliban, in an ethical sense, is a catastrophe of faith.

The Taliban believes in war. Sacrifice is not just a tool for the pure salvation of the self, but one that is enabled by the violent desire to sacrifice others. The crisis of such a belief is that, for its adherents, the world that does not share their belief is an enemy. The enemy establishes and justifies the double-sacrifice. Žižek’s reading of the ideology of faith is banal and blind to these ethical concerns.

Žižek brings Michel Foucault’s view on the Iranian Revolution of 1978 into the discussion in order to highlight the question of truth as a partial form of discourse that challenges universalising norms. Truth, in this understanding, is a perspective and hence, not total. Truth is deployed as a form of engagement which speaks in terms of survival and victory. In other words, it is truth that is in the service of war.

Žižek next reminds us that Marxism needs to be understood as an ideology where what is universal and objective is understood not in terms of knowledge (the mentalist), but in terms of real conditions. Žižek winds up the philosophical core of the Marxist position by reiterating that the class struggle does not create an obstacle to the universal and objective understanding of history, except by limiting (or contextualising) that understanding to material conditions. Remember Žižek’s reasons behind the Taliban takeover: war and corruption. Is political corruption (before the Taliban took over Afghanistan) a material ground for revolutionary praxis? No, it merely serves the argument for better governance.

The end of American hegemony in Afghanistan will worsen the country’s internal war. Between a shoddy experiment with democracy and the Taliban’s warlord-ism, Žižek’s revolutionary wisdom is to side with the latter.

Whenever a significant political event takes place in the non-western world, a western thinker feels obliged to analyse it using the tools of European thought. The non-western world provides an empirical ground that is to be explained through western theory. There is no regard for the specificity of conditions of the non-western world, which are resistant to universalising norms and theories.

I am not saying we don’t need western knowledge to understand our world. I am rather saying that western intellectuals need to understand the political culture peculiar to the non-West, critically assess its internal challenges and note its many histories of difference. They need to get more acquainted with intellectual resources from within our locations before turning us over to western knowledge, as its (im)proper subjects.

The idea of truth that Žižek smuggles into his understanding of the Taliban takeover, via Foucault, is a specific kind of truth in a specific situation. It is truth in the service of war. If truth is an argument, or is possible to be made as such, it is lost in war. If war itself is considered truth, then we have pushed truth to a place where Žižek‘s terms of survival and victory can only be measured in terms of eliminating others. In other words, the establishment of truth – partial and supposedly perspectival – can only be possible when the other is destroyed.

It is only in the death or total occupation of the other that truth can prevail. There is no space for Marxism here. Marxist politics is about the elimination of conditions, not people. The elimination of people is fascism.

In his conversation with Ukrainian director, Sergei Loznitsa, who made the documentary on Stalin’s death, State Funeral (2019) the Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello said, “Stalin was basically a fascist…[who] believed that the only anti-democratic way to rule was through the police.” Same goes for the Taliban, wielding guns in streets and neighbourhoods, hunting down people who don’t cater to their idea of society or religion.

War brings with it a false sense of totality. Just because war is specific to a people and region does not mean some great liberation from the universalising norms of western modernity is taking place. In fact, such wars reveal the worst symptoms bequeathed by western modernity.

Žižek feels that liberal individualism and its commitment to a materially ungrounded idea of universality will dismiss any ideology or force that inspires its adherents to risk lives as “irrational”. Forget what liberals may think. The point is that any violence that aims for state power has purely rational considerations.

Even though he acknowledges that Marxist theory cannot give us a “convincing” explanation for the Taliban phenomenon, Žižek doesn’t lose heart and takes recourse to Freudian territory, imaging the return of Taliban as the return of the “repressed” in collective form, which now seeks to challenge western hegemony “in the guise of religious fundamentalism”. He finds it a moment of “emancipatory engagement”.

Žižek’s idea of the “repressed” as a collective form of emancipation against western hegemony is miserably out of place. This “repressed” is the surplus created by that same western hegemony and is hence, invariably and logically caught in the death-traps unleashed by that hegemony. There is no emancipatory potential in any collective expression of solidarity with fascist violence.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Immoral West

Slavoj Zizek, "The true enemy for Islamists is not the West’s neocolonialism or military aggression, but our ‘immoral’ culture"
Ayatollah Khomeini once wrote: “We’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is the invasion of Western immorality.” And it is this fear that fuels the Taliban.

A couple of days ago, Hamad International Airport in Qatar was proclaimed the best in the world, winning over Changi Airport in Singapore. But reports on the luxury amenities available at Hamad were totally overshadowed by what is going on at the Kabul airport: Thousands desperately trying to leave the country, individuals hanging onto planes taking off and falling from them after take-off… as if we are witnessing the latest tragic example of the ironic supplement to the old anti-colonialist motto: ‘Yankee go home!’ – ‘Yankee go home… and take me with you!’

The true enigma is in what must have been a surprise for the Taliban itself – how quickly the Afghan army’s resistance melted away. If thousands are now desperately trying to catch a flight out of the country and are ready to risk their life to escape, why didn’t they FIGHT against the Taliban? Why do they prefer dropping to their death from the sky, to death in battle? The easy answer to this is that those who crowd the Kabul airport are the corrupted minority of the American collaborators… However, what about the thousands of women who stay at home frightened? Are they also collaborators?

The fact is that the US occupation of Afghanistan gradually created some kind of secular civil society, with many women educated, employed, and aware of their rights, and also with an important independent intellectual life. When Goran Therborn visited Kabul and Herat a couple of years ago to give a talk on Western Marxism, hundreds of people turned up, to the surprise of the organizers. Yes, the Taliban are now stronger than ever, stronger than they were 20 years ago when Western powers came to Afghanistan to liberate the country from them, which clearly demonstrates the futility of the entire operation, but should we for that reason ignore the (partially, at least, unintended) progressive consequences of their intervention?

Yanis Varoufakis touched on this difficult point in a recent tweet: “On the day liberal-neocon imperialism was defeated once and for all, DiEM25’s thoughts are with the women of Afghanistan. Our solidarity probably means little to them but it is what we can offer – for the time being. Hang in there sisters!”

How are we to read the two parts of his tweet, i.e., why the defeat of liberal imperialism coming with the regression of women’s (and other) rights? Do we (those who count ourselves as the global Left opponents of neocolonial imperialism) have the right to ask Afghan women to sacrifice their rights so that global liberal capitalism can suffer a big defeat? When Varoufakis was accused of subordinating women’s liberation to the anti-imperialist struggle, he tweeted back: “We predicted how neocon imperialism would strengthen Misogynist Islamic Fundamentalism (MIF). It did! How did the neocons react? By blaming MIF’s triumph on… us. Cowards as well as war criminals.”

I must say that I find this putting the blame on neocons a little bit problematic: Neocons easily find a common language with the Taliban – remember that Trump invited the Taliban to Camp David and made a pact with them which opened up the path towards the US capitulation.

Plus, there already are neocon reactions to the fall of Kabul which treat it as the ultimate defeat of the Western tradition of secular enlightenment and individualist hedonism… No, it was not neocons who boosted Islamic fundamentalism, this fundamentalism grew up in a reaction to the influence of Western liberal secularism and individualism.

Decades ago, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote: “We’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is the invasion of Western immorality.” The fact that Khomeini talked about fear, about what a Muslim should fear most in the West, should be taken literally: Muslim fundamentalists do not have any problems with the brutality of economic and military struggles, their true enemy is not the Western economic neocolonialism and military aggressiveness, but its “immoral” culture.

In many African and Asian countries, the gay movement is also perceived as an expression of the cultural impact of capitalist globalization and of its undermining of traditional social and cultural forms, so that, consequently, the struggle against gays appears as an aspect of the anti-colonial struggle.

Does the same not hold for, say, Boko Haram? For its members, the liberation of women appears as the most visible feature of the destructive cultural impact of capitalist modernization, so that Boko Haram (whose name can be roughly and descriptively translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’, specifically the education of women) can perceive and portray itself as an agent fighting the destructive impact of modernization, by way of imposing a hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes.

The enigma is thus: Why do Muslims, who have undoubtedly been exposed to exploitation, domination, and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response what is (for us, at least) the best part of the Western legacy – our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, inclusive of a healthy dose of irony and a mocking of all authorities?

The obvious answer is that their target is well-chosen. What makes the liberal West so unbearable for them is not only that it practices exploitation and violent domination, but that, to add insult to injury, it presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: Freedom, equality, and democracy.

So we have to learn again Marx’s crucial lesson: True capitalism systematically violates its own rules (‘human rights and freedoms’) – just remember that, at the beginning of the modern era which celebrates human freedoms, capitalism resuscitated slavery in its colonies… But capitalism at the same time provided standards to measure its own hypocrisy, so we should not say, ‘since human rights are a mask of exploitation, let’s drop human rights’, but: ‘Let’s take human rights more seriously than those who founded the ideology of human rights!’ This is what, from the very beginning, Socialism meant.

So what should Americans have done? Yes, they messed up the situation, but after they did that, they lost the right to just run away from the mess they created. They should have stayed and started to act differently. How? Let me just conclude with a reversal of the well-known metaphor of how, when we are throwing out the dirty water from a bathtub, we should be careful not to lose the clean and healthy baby. Racists are doing this after they realize that the Western interventions destined to spread human rights and freedoms to the poor and dirty Third World countries miserably fail: OK, so let’s throw out of the bathtub of human rights and freedoms the dirty water of Third World people who are not mature enough for secular democracy, and let’s just keep in the pure white baby…

Perhaps we should do the exact opposite: Throw out the pure white baby and be careful not to lose the dirty water of the poor and exploited in the Third World who really deserve human rights and not just our sympathy and charity.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Ruing the Taliban Blues...

Slavoj Zizek: "The real reason why the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan so quickly, which Western liberal media avoids mentioning"
The Taliban’s 80,000 troops have retaken Afghanistan with cities falling like dominos while the 300,000-strong government forces, better equipped and trained, mostly melted and surrendered with no will to fight. Why did it happen?

The Western media tell us there can be several explanations for that. The first one is blatantly racist: the Afghan people there are simply not mature enough for democracy, they long for religious fundamentalism – a ridiculous claim if there ever was one. Half a century ago, Afghanistan was a (moderately) enlightened country with a strong Communist Party known as the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which even managed to take power for some years. Afghanistan became religiously fundamentalist only later, as a reaction to the Soviet occupation which aimed to prevent the collapse of communist power.

Another explanation the media gives us is terror, as the Taliban ruthlessly executes those who oppose its politics.

A further one is faith: the Taliban simply believe their acts fulfill the task imposed on them by God and their victory is guaranteed. So, they can afford to be patient because time is on their side.

A more complex and realistic explanation as to why the Taliban managed to retake the country so promptly is chaos caused by the ongoing war and corruption. That could have caused a belief that even if the Taliban regime would bring oppression and impose Sharia Law, it would at least guarantee some safety and order.

However, all these explanations seem to avoid a basic fact that is traumatic for the liberal Western view. That is the Taliban’s disregard for survival and the readiness of its fighters to assume “martyrdom,” to die not just in a battle but even in suicidal acts. The explanation that Taliban as fundamentalists “really believe” that they will enter paradise if they die as martyrs is not enough as it fails to capture the difference between belief in the sense of intellectual insight (“I know I will go to heaven, it’s a fact”) and belief as an engaged subjective position.

In other words, it fails to take into account the material power of an ideology – in this case, the power of faith – which is not simply grounded in the strength of our conviction but in how we are existentially committed to our belief: we are not subjects choosing this or that belief, but we “are” our belief in the sense of this belief impregnating our life.

It was due to this feature that French philosopher Michel Foucault was so fascinated by the 1978 Islamic Revolution that he twice visited Iran. What fascinated him there was not just the stance of accepting martyrdom and indifference with regard to losing one’s own life; he was “engaged in a very specific telling of the ‘history of truth’, emphasizing a partisan and agonistic form of truth-telling, and transformation through struggle and ordeal, as opposed to the pacifying, neutralizing, and normalizing forms of modern Western power. Crucial for understanding this point is the conception of truth at work in historico-political discourse, a conception of truth as partial, as reserved for partisans.”

Or, as Foucault himself put it:
“If this subject who speaks of right (or rather, rights) is speaking the truth, that truth is no longer the universal truth of the philosopher. It is true that this discourse about the general war, this discourse that tries to interpret the war beneath peace, is indeed an attempt to describe the battle as a whole and to reconstruct the general course of the war. But that does not make it a totalizing or neutral discourse; it is always a perspectival discourse. It is interested in the totality only to the extent that it can see it in one-sided terms, distort it and see it from its own point of view. The truth is, in other words, a truth that can be deployed only from its combat position, from the perspective of the sought for victory and ultimately, so to speak, of the survival of the speaking subject himself.”
Can such an engaged discourse be dismissed as a sign of premodern “primitive” society which didn’t yet enter modern individualism? And is its revival today to be dismissed as a sign of fascist regression?

To anyone minimally acquainted with Western Marxism, the answer is clear: Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs demonstrated how Marxism is “universally true” not in spite of its partiality but because it is “partial,” accessible only from a particular subjective position. We may agree or disagree with this view, but the fact is that what Foucault was looking for in far-away Iran – the agonistic (“war”) form of truth-telling – was already forcefully present in the Marxist view that being caught in the class struggle is not an obstacle to “objective” knowledge of history but its condition.

The usual positivist notion of knowledge as an “objective” (non-partial) approach to reality which is not distorted by a particular subjective engagement – what Foucault characterized as “the pacifying, neutralizing, and normalizing forms of modern Western power” – is ideology at its purest – the ideology of the “end of ideology.”

On the one hand, we have non-ideological “objective” expert-knowledge. On the other hand, we have dispersed individuals, each of whom is focused on his/her idiosyncratic “care of the self” (the term Foucault used when he abandoned his Iranian experience), small things that bring pleasure to his/her life.

From this standpoint of liberal individualism, and universal commitment, especially if it includes risk of life, is suspicious and “irrational”…

Here we encounter an interesting paradox: while it is doubtful that traditional Marxism can provide a convincing account of the success of Taliban, it provided a perfect European example of what Foucault was looking for in Iran (and of what fascinates us now in Afghanistan), an example which did not involve any religious fundamentalism but just a collective engagement for a better life. After the triumph of global capitalism, this spirit of collective engagement was repressed, and now this repressed stance seems to return in the guise of religious fundamentalism.

Can we imagine a return of the repressed in its proper form of collective emancipatory engagement? Indeed. Not only can we imagine it, it is already knocking on our doors with great force.

Let’s just mention the global warming catastrophe – it calls for large-scale collective actions which will demand their own forms of martyrdom, sacrificing many pleasures we have got used to. If we really want to change our entire way of life, the individualist “care of the self” which focuses on our use of pleasures will have to be superseded. Expert science alone will not do the job – it will have to be a science rooted in the deepest collective engagement. THIS should be our answer to the Taliban.

Perhaps the celebration was a bit premature...

Influencing the Fake Plastic Me's

Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees"
Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth

That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns

He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins

And it wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love

But I can't help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run

And it wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
And if I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted
All the time
All the time

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Left is Failing...

Slavoj Zizek, "The global capitalist order is approaching a crisis again, and the vanished radical legacy has to be resuscitated"
The rise of rightist populism across Eastern Europe has formed what I call a new axis of evil – and it needs to be confronted and defeated.

Thirty-two years after the fall of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, nationalist conservative populism is returning there with a vengeance: the recent turn of Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and some other post-socialist countries – I call them a new axis of evil – into a conservative-illiberal direction worries us all. How could have things turned so wrong? Maybe, we are paying the price now for something that vanished from our view after socialism was replaced by capitalist democracy. What vanished was not socialism but things that mediated the passage from socialism to capitalist democracy.

“Vanishing mediator,” a term introduced decades ago by Fredric Jameson, designates a specific feature in the process of a passage from the old order to a new order: when the old order is disintegrating, unexpected things happen, not just horrors mentioned by Gramsci but also bright utopian projects and practices. Once the new order is established, a new narrative arises and, within this new ideological space, mediators disappear from view.

Here is an example. In his Immaterialism, Graham Harman quotes a perspicuous remark on the 1960s: “You have to remember that the 1960s really happened in the 1970s.” His comment: “An object somehow exists ‘even more’ in the stage following its initial heyday. The marijuana smoking, free love, and internal violence of the dramatic American 1960s were in some ways even better exemplified by the campy and tasteless 1970s.”

If, however, one takes a closer look at the passage from the 1960s to the 1970s, one can easily see the key difference: in the 1960s, the spirit of permissiveness, sexual liberation, counter-culture and drugs was part of a utopian political protest movement, while in the 1970s, this spirit was deprived of its political content and fully integrated into the hegemonic culture and ideology. Although one should definitely raise the question of the limitation of the spirit of the 1960s which rendered this integration so easy, the repression of the political dimension remains a key feature of the popular culture of the 1970s. This dimension was the “vanishing mediator” which later disappeared from view.

The reason I mention all this is that the passage to capitalism in East European socialist countries was also not a direct transition: between the Socialist order and the new order, liberal-capitalist and/or nationalist-conservative, there were many vanishing mediators the new power was trying to erase from memory. I witnessed this process when Yugoslavia fell apart. To avoid any misunderstanding, I have no nostalgia for Yugoslavia: the war that ravaged it from 1991 to 1995 was its truth, the moment when all antagonisms of the Yugoslav project exploded. Yugoslavia died in 1985 when Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia and broke the fragile balance that kept it working.

In the last years of Yugoslavia, communists in power knew they were lost, so they desperately tried to find a way to survive as a political force during the passage to democracy. Some did it by mobilizing nationalist passions, others tolerated and even supported new democratic processes. In Slovenia, communists in power showed understanding for punk music, including Laibach, and for the gay movement… (Incidentally, they financed a gay periodical and after the free elections, this money was canceled – the newly elected conservative city council of Ljubljana judged that being gay is not a culture but a way of life which doesn’t need to be supported.)

At a more general level, when people protested against the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, what the large majority had in mind was not capitalism. They wanted social security, solidarity, a rough kind of justice; they wanted the freedom to live their lives outside of state control, to come together and talk as they pleased; they wanted a life of simple honesty and sincerity, liberated from primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy... in short, the vague ideals that led the protesters were, to a large extent, taken from socialist ideology itself. And, as we learned from Sigmund Freud, what is repressed returns in a distorted form. In Europe, the socialism repressed in the dissident imaginary returned in the guise of right-wing populism.

Although, as to their positive content, the communist regimes were a failure, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing socialism itself. When dissidents like Vaclav Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by communism itself – which is why they tend to be so disappointed when the “really existing capitalism” does not meet the high expectations of their anti-Communist struggle.

At a recent reception in Poland, a nouveau riche capitalist congratulated Adam Michnik for being a doubly successful capitalist (he helped destroy socialism, plus he heads a highly profitable publishing empire); deeply embarrassed, Michnik replied: “I am not a capitalist; I am a socialist who is unable to forgive socialism that it did not work.”

Why mention these vanishing mediators today? In his interpretation of the fall of East European communism, Jurgen Habermas proved to be the ultimate left Fukuyamist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic order is the best one possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, we should not challenge its basic premises.

This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-communist future. As he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just “rectifying” or “catch-up” (nachholende) revolutions; their aim being to enable those societies to gain what the Western Europeans already possessed; in other words, to return to the West European normality.

However, the “gilets jaunes” protests in Spain and other similar protests today are definitely NOT catch-up movements. They embody the weird reversal that characterizes today’s global situation. The old antagonism between “ordinary people” and financial-capitalist elites is back with a vengeance, with “ordinary people” erupting in protest against the elites, who are accused of being blind to their suffering and demands.

However, what is new is that the populist Right has proved to be much more adept in channeling these eruptions in its direction than the Left. Alain Badiou was thus fully justified to say apropos the gilets jaunes: “Tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge” — all that moves (makes unrest) is not red. Today’s populist Right participates in a long tradition of popular protests which were predominantly leftist.

Here, then, is the paradox we have to confront: the populist disappointment at liberal democracy is proof that 1989 was not just a catch-up revolution, that it aimed at more than the liberal-capitalist normality. Freud spoke about Unbehagen in der Kultur, the discontent or unease in culture; today, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, the ongoing new wave of protests bears witness of a kind of Unbehagen in liberal capitalism, and the key question is: who will articulate this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit it? Therein resides the big task of the left. This discontent is not something new. I’ve written about it more than 30 years ago in “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead” (a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale), which was published in New Left Review back in 1990 - may I quote myself?:

“The dark side of the processes current in Eastern Europe is thus the gradual retreat of the liberal-democratic tendency in the face of the growth of corporate national populism with all its usual elements, from xenophobia to anti-Semitism. The swiftness of this process has been surprising: today, we find anti-Semitism in East Germany (where one attributes to Jews the lack of food, and to Vietnamese the lack of bicycles) and in Hungary and in Romania (where the persecution of the Hungarian minority also continues). Even in Poland we can perceive signs of a split within Solidarity: the rise of a nationalist-populist faction that imputes to the ‘cosmopolitan intellectual’ (the old regime’s codeword for Jews) the failure of the recent government’s measures.”

This dark side is now re-emerging forcefully, and its effects are felt in the rightist rewriting of history: first, the socialist aspect of the struggle against communism (remember that Solidarnosc was a workers trade union!) disappears, and then even the liberal aspect disappears so that a new story emerges in which the only true opposition is the one between communist legacy and the Christian-national legacy – or, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban put it: “There are no liberals, only communists with university degrees.”

On July 7, 2021, Orban bought a page in the Austrian daily Die Presse to publish his views on Europe. His main points were: Brussels’ bureaucracy acts as a “superstate” which only protects its own ideological and institutional goals – nobody authorized Brussels to do it. We should renounce the goal of greater unity because the coming decade will bring new challenges and dangers, and Europeans need to be protected from “massive migrations and pandemics.”
This couple is a false one: immigrants and pandemic didn’t invade us from outside, for both we are responsible. Without the US intervention in Iraq etc., there would have been much fewer immigrants; without global capitalism, there would have been no pandemic; plus it is precisely immigrant crises and pandemics which necessitate stronger European unity.

The new rightist populism aims at destroying the European emancipatory legacy: its Europe is a Europe of nation-states bent on preserving their particular identity – when a couple of years ago, Steve Bannon visited France, he finished a speech there with: “America first, vive la France!” Vive la France, viva Italia, long live Germany… but not Europe.

Does this mean that we should put all our forces into resuscitating liberal democracy? No: in some sense Orban is right, the rise of new populism is a symptom of what was wrong with the liberal-democratic capitalism which was praised by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (Fukuyama now supports Bernie Sanders). In order to save what is worth saving in liberal democracy, we have to move to the left, to what Orban and his companions perceive as “communism.” How can this be?

Today in Europe, we are not dealing with three positions – populist right, liberal center, left – within the same universal political arch which reaches from the right to the left: each of the three positions implies its own vision of the universal political space. For a liberal, left and right are the two extremes that threaten our freedoms; if any of them predominates, authoritarianism wins – that’s why European liberals see in what Orban is now doing in Hungary (his fierce anti-communism), the continuation of the same methods as those of communists in power.

For the left, rightist populism is, of course, worse than tolerant liberalism, but it perceives the rise of rightist populism as a symptom of what went wrong in liberalism, so if we want to get rid of rightist populism, we should radically change liberal capitalism itself which is now morphing into neo-feudal corporate rule. The new populist right exploits the fully justified complaints of ordinary people against the reign of big corporations and banks which cover up their ruthless exploitation, domination, and new forms of control over our lives with fake politically correct justice.

For the new populist right, multiculturalism, MeToo, LGBT+, etc., are just a continuation of communist totalitarianism, sometimes worse than communism itself – Brussels is the center of “cultural Marxism.” The alt-right obsession with cultural Marxism signals its rejection to confront the fact that the phenomena they criticize as the effects of the cultural Marxist plot (moral degradation, sexual promiscuity, consumerist hedonism, etc.) are the outcome of the immanent dynamic of late capitalism itself.

In his The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell described how the unbounded drive of modern capitalism undermines the moral foundations of the original Protestant ethic that ushered in capitalism itself. In a new afterword, Bell offers a bracing perspective on contemporary Western society, from the end of the Cold War to the rise and fall of postmodernism, revealing the crucial cultural fault lines we face as the 21st century continues.

The turn towards culture as a key component of capitalist reproduction, and, concomitant to it, the commodification of cultural life itself, enables capital’s expanded reproduction. Just think about today’s explosion of art biennales (Venice, Kassel…): although they usually present themselves as a form of resistance towards global capitalism and its commodification of everything, they are, in their mode of organization, the ultimate form of art as a moment of capitalist self-reproduction.

Now we see why we should remember vanishing mediators: today the global capitalist order is approaching a crisis again, and the vanished radical legacy will have to be resuscitated.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Gladwell's "Outliers"

Intro "The Rosetto Mystery": 0:00 Part 1 Opportunities
Chapter 1 "The Mathew Effect": 13:14 Chapter 2 "The 10,000 hr Rule": 40:37 Chapter 3 "The Trouble with Genius' (Part One)": 1:26:26 Chapter 4 "The Trouble with Genius' (Part Two)": 1:53:32
Chapter 5 "The Three Lessons of Joe Flomm": 2:32:34 Part 2 Legacy Chapter 6 "Harlan, Kentucky; Die Like a Man Like Your Brother Did": 3:37:40 Chapter 7 "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes": 4:00:37
Chapter 8 "Rice Paddies and Math Tests": 5:13:12
Chapter 9 "Marita's Bargain, All My Friends Are from Kip": 5:52:13

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Vikings: the big Other as the truth of appearance

What Lacan calls “the big Other” designates a dimension beyond (or, rather, beneath) the sphere of reality and the pleasure-principle, of hedonism, as well as of the perfidious calculations and manipulations applied to ruthlessly reach a goal. It is a dimension that is also, in some sense, beyond good and evil. But this dimension can also appear in the guise of a “superficial” link of respectful friendship, which cannot be reduced to egotist calculation.

Let’s take a perhaps unexpected but perfect example. In the TV series Vikings, Ragnar Lothbrok tells the Seer, an old half-blind Viking who predicts the future: “I don’t believe in the gods’ existence. Man is the master of his own fate, not the gods. The gods are man’s creation, to give answers that men are too afraid to give themselves.” The supreme case of how Ragnar acts as a master of his own fate is his plotting of his own death, turning it into his greatest victory.

In season 4, Ragnar is tired and defeated. After losing some battles in England and France, he returns home, deprived of his aura; he is despised and ignored, and even his sons no longer believe in him. He becomes obsessed by his own death. Upon his return, he challenges his sons to stab him to death and take the crown over from him, which they refuse. Later, he tries to hang himself on a tree but fails (the rope is somewhat magically bitten through by a raven who descends on the tree). At this lowest point, he elaborates a complex plan to use his own death to set up his enemies for defeat, and his sons for victory and fame. Since no volunteers are ready to join him when he announces his plan to raid England again as a revenge for the Viking community being slaughtered there, he digs out his secret treasure and bribes a group of old warriors to join him, together with his crippled son Ivan the Boneless, the only volunteer. However, soon after landing there, Ragnar and Ivar kill all other Vikings, and Ragnar goes with Ivar to the castle (the Roma villa) of the Wessex king Ecbert, surrendering to him. Why?

In England, Ragnar has two main enemies, Ecbert and king Aella of Northumbria. He plundered both of their lands, but with Ecbert the situation is more complex. Ragnar made a pact with him, which obliged Ecbert to give some fertile land for a Viking settlement to Northmen who wanted to farm there, but soon after Ragnar left home to Norway, Ecbert organized a slaughter of all Viking settlers, making Ragnar appear to his people as an impotent ruler, so Ragnar has to take revenge. However, since he is an old and exhausted man who cannot mobilize the Vikings for another invasion of England, he makes a cold calculation: the only thing that can mobilize the Vikings to take revenge is his horrible death there. So, he surrenders to Ecbert with his son Ivor, knowing that he will be killed and that his crippled son will not be hurt, but will report home about his terrible death, which will mobilize all his sons and even all the Vikings to invade England. He tricks Ecbert into believing that his crime—slaughtering the Viking settlers—is forgiven and offers him a deal: Ecbert would hand him over to Aella for execution and let Ivar go free, so that the Viking invasion will leave Wessex in peace and focus just on destroying Aella. (Since Aella really hates Ragnar, it is also clear that he will put Ragnar to death in a horrible way that will enrage the Vikings.) When he is says goodbye to Ivar, he whispers to his son that the Vikings should take revenge not only on Aella but, even more so, on Ecbert, which is exactly what happens. (Still, there are signs that Ecbert did not really believe Ragnar’s lie: he knows Vikings will take revenge on him also, and that’s why he awaits alone in his Villa the moment when they arrive, ready to die like Ragnar.) The basic goal of Ragnar’s death, the destruction of both Ecbert and Aella as well as the establishment of a large Viking settlement in England, is thus achieved.[1]

That said, their similar personalities and their shared love for Athelstan, a monk torn between Viking paganism and Christianity, mean that Ragnar and Ecbert have a great deal of respect for each other. There is a bond of friendship and genuine intellectual exchange between the two. After Ragnar’s surrender to Ecbert, they spend long hours drinking and engaging in existential debates where, among other things, Ragnar admits that he is an atheist. The mystery is not only why Ragnar returned to Ecbert and surrendered himself to him (this can be explained by Ragnar’s plot of revenge), but why Ecbert receives him with no surprise: “Why did it take you so long to come?” Ecbert does not refer here to return as an act of revenge – he expected Ragnar to come back to him alone. So, it is too easy to say that Ragnar just faked friendship with Ecbert in order to pursue his plot: the joy of their encounter is genuine.[2]

There is another excess in Ragnar, which cannot be accounted for in the terms of a cunning plot: his wish to die (twice before, he tried to kill himself). And, again, after Ragnar’s death, Ecbert displays the same excess. He is present at Ragnar’s final moments, anonymous in a crowd of observers and deeply shaken. When, after defeating and killing Aella, the Viking forces approach the Wessex seat of power (the “Villa”), all residents are evacuated to a safe terrain outside the reach of Vikings, except Ecbert who remains in the palace alone, waiting for Ragnar’s sons to arrive and exert revenge on him. As a special favour, they don’t submit him to a blood eagle, as Ivar wants, but allow him to choose his own death – he cuts his wrists in his Roman pool –, but in exchange he has to designate a Viking as his royal successor.

Why did Ecbert surrender to Vikings alone, exactly like Ragnar surrendered alone to him, when he could have escaped with the others? While Ragnar’s plot of planning his spectacular death can be read as a pagan appropriation of the Christian sacrifice, the two excesses over the cunning manipulation of one’s opponent point to another dimension. Although they appear not related to each other (what could a wish to die have to do with genuine intellectual exchange and friendship?), there is a link between the two: they are both located beyond the pleasure principle and its supplement, reality principle, i.e., they both cannot be accounted for in the terms of a pursuit of political or social goals of power and domination. The point is not that beyond their mutual manipulation Ragnar and Ecbert really loved each other; the point is, rather, that the very form of their interaction is irreducible to its content (revenge). Although for both of them their polite interaction is just a form, a mask for the ruthless realization of their interests, which include the destruction of the partner, there is more truth in this form (mask) than in the raw egotist content beneath it.[3]

Solaris: the Id-Machine

The form that contains its own truth prior to and independent of the content transmitted by it is what Lacan called the “big Other.” Say, if I address my partner respectfully, the respectful form establishes a certain intersubjective relation, which persists even if my address serves just to deceive my partner. The big Other is as such a purely virtual identity: it isn’t any deeper truth of mine, its truth is its form itself. However, as Lacan insists, ”there is no big Other,” which means not only that the big Other is virtual, with no substantive reality of its own, but that it is in itself inconsistent/incomplete, perforated by gaps. These gaps are filled by another version of the big Other: a phantasmatic apparition of the big Other as a real Thing in the guise of the so-called Id-Machine, a mechanism that directly materializes our unacknowledged fantasies and possesses a long, if not always respectable, pedigree.

In cinema, it all began with Fred Wilcox’s The Forbidden Planet (1956), which transposed onto a distant planet the story-skeleton of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a father lives alone with his daughter (who had never met another man) on an island, and then their peace is disturbed by the intrusion of an expedition. On The Forbidden Planet, the mad-genius scientist lives alone with his daughter, when their peace is disturbed by the arrival of a group of space travellers. Strange attacks of an invisible monster soon start to occur, and, at the film’s end, it becomes clear that this monster is nothing but the materialization of the father’s destructive impulses against the intruders who disturbed his incestuous peace. The Id-Machine that, unbeknownst to the father, generates the destructive monster is a gigantic mechanism beneath the surface of this distant planet, the mysterious remnants of some past civilization that succeeded in developing such a machine for the direct materialization of one’s thoughts and thus destroyed itself… Here, the Id-Machine is firmly set in a Freudian libidinal context: the monsters it generates are the realizations of the primordial father’s incestuous destructive impulses against other men threatening his symbiosis with the daughter.[4]

The ultimate variation on the Id-Machine is arguably Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, in which this Thing is also related to the deadlocks of sexual relationship.[5] Solaris is the story of a space agency psychologist Kelvin, sent to a half-abandoned spaceship above a newly-discovered planet Solaris, where recently strange things have been taking place (scientists going mad, hallucinating and killing themselves). Solaris is a planet with an oceanic fluid surface which moves incessantly and, from time to time, imitates recognizable forms—not only elaborate geometric structures, but also gigantic child bodies or human buildings. Although all attempts to communicate with the planet fail, scientists entertain the hypothesis that Solaris is a gigantic brain which somehow reads our minds.

Soon after his arrival, Kelvin finds at his side in his bed his dead wife, Harey, who, years ago on Earth, killed herself after he had abandoned her. He is unable to shake Harey off; all attempts to get rid of her miserably fail (after he sends her into space with a rocket, she rematerializes the next day). Analysis of her tissue demonstrates that she is not composed of atoms like normal human beings. Beneath a certain micro-level, there is nothing, just void. Finally, Kelvin grasps that Harey is a materialization of his own innermost traumatic fantasies. This accounts for the enigma of strange gaps in Harey’s memory: of course she doesn’t know everything a real person is supposed to know, because she is not such a person, but a mere materialization of HIS phantasmatic image of her in all its inconsistency. The problem is that, precisely because Harey has no substantial identity of her own, she acquires the status of the Real that forever insists and returns to its place. Like fire in Lynch’s films, she forever “walks with the hero,” sticks to him, never lets him go. Harey, this fragile specter, pure semblance, cannot ever be erased; she is “undead,” eternally recurring in the space between the two deaths.

Are we thus not back at the standard Weiningerian anti-feminist notion of the woman as a symptom of man, a materialization of his guilt (his fall into sin), and one who can only deliver him (and herself) by her suicide? Solaris thus relies on science-fiction rules to enact in reality itself, to present as a material fact, the notion that woman merely materializes a male fantasy. The tragic position of Harey is that she becomes aware that she is deprived of all substantial identity, that she is Nothing in herself, since she only exists as the Other’s dream. It is this predicament that imposes suicide as her ultimate ethical act: becoming aware of how Kelvin suffers on account of her permanent presence, Harey finally destroys herself by swallowing the chemical stuff that will prevent her recomposition. (The ultimate horror scene of the movie takes place when the spectral Harey reawakens from her first failed suicide attempt on Solaris. After ingesting liquid oxygen, she lies on the floor, deeply frozen; then, all of a sudden, she starts to move, her body twitching in a mixture of erotic beauty and abject horror, sustaining unbearable pain. Is there anything more tragic than such a scene of the failed self-erasure, when we are reduced to the obscene slime which, against our will, persists in the picture?) The Weiningerian ontological denigration of woman as a mere “symptom” of man—as the embodiment of male fantasy, as the hysterical imitation of true male subjectivity—is, when openly admitted and fully assumed, far more subversive that the false direct assertion of feminine autonomy. Perhaps, the ultimate feminist statement is to proclaim openly “I do not exist in myself, I am merely the Other’s fantasy embodied”…

What we have in Solaris are thus Harey’s two suicides: the first one (in her earlier earthly “real” existence, as Kelvin’s wife), and then her second suicide, the heroic act of the self-erasure of her very spectral undead existence. While the first suicidal act was a simple escape from the burden of life, the second is a proper ethical act. In other words, if the first Harey, before her suicide on Earth, was a “normal” human being, the second one is a Subject in the most radical sense of the term, precisely insofar as she is deprived of the last vestiges of her substantial identity (as she says in the film: “No, it’s not me… It’s not me… I’m not Harey. /…/ Tell me… tell me… Do you find me disgusting because of what I am?”). The difference between Harey who appears to Kelvin and the “monstrous Aphrodite” who appears to Gibarian, one of Kelvin’s colleagues on the spaceship (in the novel, though not in the film: in the film, Tarkovsky replaced her by a small innocent blonde girl), is that Gibarian’s apparition does not come from “real life” memory, but from pure fantasy: “A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs.”[6] Unable to sustain a confrontation with his primordial phantasmatic apparition, Gibarian dies of shame.

Is the planet around which the story turns, composed of the mysterious matter which seems to think, i.e. which in a way is the direct materialization of Thought itself, not again an exemplary case of the Lacanian Thing as the “Obscene Jelly,”[7] the traumatic Real, the point at which symbolic distance collapses, the point at which there is no need for speech, for signs, since, in it, thought directly intervenes in the Real? This gigantic Brain, this Other-Thing, involves a kind of psychotic short-circuit: in short-circuiting the dialectic of question and answer, of demand and its satisfaction, it provides—or, rather, imposes on us—the answer before we even raise the question, directly materializing our innermost fantasies that support our desire. Solaris is a machine that generates/materializes in reality itself my ultimate phantasmatic objectal supplement/partner that I would never be ready to accept in reality, even though my entire psychic life turns around it.

Jacques-Alain Miller[8] draws the distinction between the woman who assumes her non-existence, her constitutive lack, i.e. the void of subjectivity in her very heart, and what he calls la femme a postiche, the fake, phony woman. This femme a postiche is not what commonsense conservative wisdom would tell us (a woman who distrusts her natural charm and abandons her vocation of rearing children, serving her husband, taking care of the household, etc., and indulges in the extravaganzas of fashionable dressing and make-up, of decadent promiscuity, of career, etc.), but almost its exact opposite: the woman who takes refuge from the void in the very heart of her subjectivity, from the “not-having-it” which marks her being, in the phony certitude of “having it,” of serving as the stable support of family life, of rearing children, her true possession, etc. This woman gives the impression (and has the false satisfaction) of a firmly anchored being, of a self-enclosed life, the satisfied circuit of everyday life: her man has to run around wildly, while she leads a calm life and serves as the safe protective rock or safe haven to which her man can always return… (The most elementary form of “having it” for a woman is, of course, having a child, which is why, for Lacan, there is an ultimate antagonism between Woman and Mother: in contrast to woman who “n’existe pas,” mother definitely does exist.)

The interesting feature to be noted here is that, contrary to the commonsensical expectation, it is the woman who “has it,” the self-satisfied femme a postiche disavowing her lack, who not only does not pose any threat to patriarchal male identity, but even serves as its protective shield and support, while, in contrast to her, it is the woman who flaunts her lack (“castration”), i.e., who functions as a hysterical composite of semblances covering a Void, that poses a serious threat to male identity. In other words, the paradox is that the more the woman is denigrated, reduced to an inconsistent and insubstantial composite of semblances around a Void, the more she threatens firm male substantial self-identity. (Otto Weininger’s entire work centers on this paradox.) And, on the other hand, the more the woman is a firm, self-enclosed Substance, the more she supports male identity.

Solaris supplements this standard, if disavowed, male scenario with a key feature: this structure of woman as a symptom of man can be operative only insofar as the man is confronted with his Other Thing, a decentered opaque machine which “reads” his deepest dreams and returns them to him as his symptom, as his own message in its true form that the subject is not ready to acknowledge. It is here that one should reject the Jungian reading of Solaris: the point of Solaris is not simply projection, or the materialization of the (male) subject’s disavowed inner impetuses. What is much more crucial is that, if this “projection” is to take place, the impenetrable Other Thing must already be here. The true enigma is the presence of this Thing.

The problem with Tarkovsky is that he himself obviously opts for the Jungian reading, according to which the external journey is merely the externalization and/or projection of the initiatic journey into the depth of one’s psyche. Apropos of Solaris, he stated in an interview:

“Maybe, effectively, the mission of Kelvin on Solaris has only one goal: to show that the love of the other is indispensable to all life. A man without love is no longer a man. The aim of the entire ‘solaristic’ is to show that humanity must be love.”[9]

In clear contrast to this, Lem’s novel focuses on the inert external presence of the planet Solaris, of this “Thing which thinks” (to use Kant’s expression, which fully fits here). The point of the novel is, precisely, that Solaris remains an impenetrable Other with no possible communication with us. True, it returns us our innermost disavowed fantasies, but the “Que vuoi?” beneath this act remains thoroughly impenetrable. Why does It do it? As a purely mechanical response? To play demonic games with us? To help us—or compel us—to confront our disavowed truth?

Nowhere is this gap between the novel and the film more perceptible than in their different endings: at the novel’s end, we see Kelvin alone on the spaceship, staring into the mysterious surface of the Solaris ocean, while the film ends with the archetypal Tarkovskian fantasy of combining within the same shot the Otherness into which the hero is thrown (the chaotic surface of Solaris) and the object of his nostalgic longing, the home dacha (Russian wooden country house) to which he longs to return, the house whose contours are encircled by the malleable slime of Solaris’ surface. Within radical Otherness, we discover the lost object of our innermost longing.

Katla: “a changeling represents the subject for another”

The latest endeavour to portray the Id-machine is Katla,[10] an Icelandic television series which complicates the logic of the Id-machine, making it morally much more ambiguous. Katla is set in Vik, a small Icelandic town located on the precipice of Katla, an active volcano, which is active for over a year, so Vik is covered by the constantly raining ash. Most of the villagers have already migrated out of place, leaving some stubborn folks behind.

The story is set in motion when people who were presumed dead start returning all of a sudden from somewhere near the volcano, covered in a mixture of ash and clay. How and why? In episode 7 Darri, a geologist from Reykyavik, heads under the glacier to investigate the meteorite in the volcano. After collecting some rock samples, he deduces that this meteorite which crashed into Earth a long time ago has a strange, alien, life-giving element within it. This element enables the meteorite to detect the most intense emotional feelings that each of the townsfolk has and use them to recreate the people that are missing. The replicas are moulded by the thoughts people have about them: they are a more exaggerated version of their real counterparts, clinging to the main trait that made them come into being, as a kind of more direct realization of the Platonic idea of a person. The reason for their return is given by local folklore, according to which a changeling appears for a purpose, and it vanishes once its purpose is served.

Here are the main cases from the first season of the series. Police Chief Gisli’s wife who lies bedridden in a hospital creates her own changeling: she makes a humanoid out of the memories of her past when she was not bedridden; this brings the estranged couple together again… To Grima, the protagonist of the series, a changeling of her deceased sister Asa appears. After Asa’s death, Grima lived in permanent depression, obsessed by the memory of Asa’s sad fate, so she created Asa’s changeling to help her cope with her disappearance (death) – this was the purpose for which Asa reappeared… But then a changeling of Grima herself appeared, created by her husband Kjartan who wanted to feel the warmth of Grima again. Out of his memories, he made Grima’s changeling the way Grima was before the disappearance of Asa. Hence, Grima’s changeling was much happier and more affectionate because the tragedy never struck her. The real Grima is conscious enough to realize this, so she confronts her changeling and challenges her to a game of Russian roulette. The real Grima doesn’t survive the game, so her changeling takes her place, with affection, warmth, and gentleness without anyone noticing the difference. Original Grima’s dead body is covered with ash and buried outside their house.

A changeling of Gunhild, younger by twenty years than the original, is created by Gunhild herself, who blamed herself for her son’s (Bjorn’s) genetic disability. She desired to move back in time (twenty years ago when she was pregnant) and to rectify the pain she caused to her child due to her carelessness and thoughts of abortion. In the end, her husband Thor tells her it wasn’t her fault: the syndrome was genetic, and, therefore, Gunhild had little to contribute to Bjorn’s defect. In her last visit to the hospital to see Bjorn, after learning about the disappearance of the changeling, Gunhild looks in a mirror and smirks; she finally comes out of remorse, as the purpose for which the changeling has been created is fulfilled.

Why does Mikael, the son of Darri and Rakel, reappear? Since the meteorite creates mutants based on the thoughts and feelings of those closest to them, Mikael can only remember things that Darri and Rakel remember about him. Darri always believed that his son Mikael was a dangerous madman, and the changeling is more in line with Darri’s interpretation than with real Mikael. Both parents agree that their real son is dead and that this spectre in front of them is just an aberration, so they lead him by the hand into the sea and drown him while he begs them not to… The action brought them together, which indirectly fulfilled Darri’s thoughts, who blamed Mikael for his divorce.

So, what returns from Katla in the guise of changelings? Recall Ragnar saying to Ecbert: “The gods are man’s creation, to give answers that men are too afraid to give themselves.” In this sense (and in this sense only) Katla is divine: it is returning to individuals who remain in Vik what they are “too afraid to give themselves.” In other words, Katla brings out the dark side of the divine: when a changeling appears to a subject, the subject doesn’t get a sublime confrontation with its inner truth; this appearance is rather grounded in a brutal egotist calculation. In the case of Darri and Rakel, the two parents kill a changeling who nonetheless exists as self-conscious living being. They conveniently ignore this fact and accomplish a cold-blooded murder just to re-establish their relationship. In the same vein, Kjartan coldly accepts the changeling as his old-new wife: she better suits his purposes since she is just his imagination materialized.

Does this mean that I have to learn to distinguish between the reality of my partner and my fantasy of him/her, so that I can deal with my partner’s reality without projecting my fantasies on him/her? What complicates things is that each of us IS also what others think/dream he/she is. In other words, it is not enough to say that the split between my partner and his/her changeling is the split between the reality of my partner and my idea/projection of him/her. This distinction is immanent to my partner him/herself.

In a key scene from Katla, Kjartan moves around his house having conversations with both versions of Grima (the real Grima who, after twenty years, returns from Sweden, and her changeling who looks like she did twenty years earlier) without realizing that there are actually two of them. Is this not what happens to us all the time? When an ordinary anti-Semite talks to a Jew, is he not doing exactly the same thing? In his perception and interaction, the reality of the Jew in front of him is inextricably mixed with his fantasies about Jews (say, if the Jew counts some money to return it to me, I will perceive this as an expression of the Jewish intense stance towards money…). However—and this is the crucial point—we cannot simply distinguish between “real” Jews and the way they are perceived by others: thousands of years of the exclusion and persecution of the Jews, and all the fantasies projected onto Jews, inevitably affected also their identity, which is formed in part in reaction to the fantasies grounding their persecution.

The general point to be made here is that the gap between me and my symbolic identity is not external to me: this is what it means to say that I am symbolically castrated. And one should be careful not to dismiss this image of what I am for the others just as a form of alienation, of something that I should abandon in order to arrive at my true self. It is easy to imagine a situation in which others trust in me and see me as a hero while I am full of doubts and weaknesses, so it takes a great effort for me to overcome my weaknesses and act at the level of what others see in and expect from me.

The moral ambiguity of changelings in Katla resides in the fact that they don’t simply serve a precise purpose or goal. The Thing-Katla is a machine which just blindly realizes our fantasy, and we, humans, opportunistically use it to suit our egotist purposes. What we ignore is the subjectivity that pertains to the changeling itself. We should read Katla through Solaris and focus on the moment of subjectivation of the changeling who has no autonomy, since its psyche contains only what others thought about it. In the Millerian distinction between femme a postiche (the fake) and the woman who assumes the void of her inexistence, it is only the changeling who, at the point of assuming its non-existence, emerges as a pure subject deprived of its substance, while the “real” woman remains a fake. In other words, the authentic position is that of a changeling who becomes aware that it only materializes the other’s fantasy, that it only exists insofar as the other fantasizes about it. Can one imagine a more anxiety-provoking existential situation than that of being aware that my being has no substantial support, that I exist only insofar as I am part of another’s dream? As Deleuze wrote decades ago, if you are caught in another’s dream, you are fucked.

Are changelings, then, beings who fit the criteria of Berkeley’s subjective idealism, in that they exist only insofar as they are in the thoughts of another mind? We have to introduce a further complication here: what if existence as such implies certain non-knowledge? This paradoxical relation between being and knowing introduces a third term into the standard opposition between ordinary materialism, for which things exist independently of our knowledge of them, and subjectivist idealism with its esse = percipi (things exist only insofar as they are known or perceived by a mind). We must conclude that things there are that only exist insofar as they are NOT known.

The uncanniest case of the link between being and not-knowing is provided by one of the best-known Freudian dreams, the one about the apparition of a “father who didn’t know he was dead.” For Freud, the full formula of the dream is thus: “Father doesn’t know (that I wish) that he were dead.” The elision of the signifier (that I wish) registers the subject’s (the dreamer’s) desire. However, what gets lost in such standard reading is the uncanny effect of the scene of a father who doesn’t know he is dead, of an entity which is alive only because it is not aware of being dead. So, what if we read this dream following Lacan’s re-reading of the Freudian dream about the dead son who appears to his father, uttering a terrifying reproach: “Father, can’t you see that I am burning?” What if we interpret the wish for the father to be dead not as the repressed unconscious wish, but as the pre-conscious problem that bothered the dreamer? The dynamic of the dream is thus the following: the dreamer invents the dream to quell his (preconscious) guilt-feeling for wishing his father dead while he was nursing him; but what he encounters in the dream is something much more traumatic than his preconscious death-wish, namely the figure of a father who is still alive because he doesn’t know that he is dead, the obscene spectre of the undead father. Lacan shifts the focus from the fascinating figure of the father who “doesn’t know he is dead” to the question that lurks in the background: to the other subject (the dreamer, to whom the father appears in this case) who does know that the father is dead, and, paradoxically, in this way keeps him alive by not telling him that he is dead.

Recall the archetypal scene from cartoons: a cat walks floating in the air above the precipice, and it falls only after it looks down and becomes aware of how it has no support beneath its feet. The dreamer is like a person who draws the cat’s attention to the abyss beneath its feet, so that when the father learns he is dead, he actually drops dead. This outcome is, of course, experienced by the dreamer as the ultimate catastrophe, so his entire strategy is directed at protecting the other/father from knowledge, such that the protection escalates to self-sacrifice: “Oh! may that never happen! May I die rather than have him know.” This brings us to one of the fundamental functions of sacrifice: one sacrifices oneself to prevent the Other from knowing. Is this not Roberto Benigni’s La vita e bella is about? The father sacrifices himself so that his son would not know (that they are in a death camp), i.e., the father’s reasoning can be rendered again by Lacan’s words: “May I die rather than have him know / that we are in a death camp/!”

The psychoanalytic notion of symptom designates a reality that subsists only insofar as something remains unsaid, insofar as its truth is not articulated in the symbolic order, which is why the proper psychoanalytic interpretation has effects in the real, i.e., it can dissolve the symptom… While such a notion of reality may appear to be an exemplary case of idealist madness, one should not miss its materialist core: reality is not simply external to thought/speech, or, more broadly, to the symbolic space; reality thwarts this space from within, making it incomplete and inconsistent. The limit that separates the real from the symbolic is simultaneously external and internal to the symbolic.

The question is: how are we to think the structure (the Other) so that a subject emerges from it? Lacan’s answer is: as an inconsistent, non-All, symbolic structure articulated around a constitutive void/impossibility. More precisely, the subject emerges through the structure’s reflective self-relating, which inscribes into the structure itself its constitutive lack. This inscription within the structure of what is constitutively excluded from it is “the signifier which represents the subject for other signifiers.”

And aren’t we thus caught in a contradiction? I exist only insofar as I am another’s fantasy, AND I exist only insofar as I elude the others’ grasp? The solution: a stone exists when nobody thinks about it, but a stone is just indifferent towards being-thought-about or not. In the case of a subject, its existence is correlated to being-thought, but being-thought incompletely. I am a lack in the Other’s thought, a lack which is immanent to the thought. One has to take this claim literally: I am not a substantial entity that the big Other (the symbolic order) cannot fully integrate/symbolize; this impossibility of the big Other to integrate me IS myself (that’s why Lacan talks about the barred subject, $). There is a subject insofar as the Other doesn’t know it, and the subject is inscribed into the Other through S1, the master-signifier, which reflexively marks in it the lack of a signifier. What this means is that the subject is not the real person behind the symbolic mask, but the self-awareness of the mask itself in its distance from the real person.

This also accounts for why the minimal number in an intersubjective communication is not two but three. When two meet, they are BOTH divided into their self-experience and their symbolic identity, and this redoubling can only function if a third moment is operative, the big Other which is not reducible to the two. Recall the old Alphonse Allais’s story of Raoul and Marguerite who arrange to meet at a masked ball: when they recognize each other’s mask they withdraw to a hidden corner, pull off their masks, and—surprise, surprise—he discovers she is not Marguerite and she find out that he is not Raoul… Such a double missed encounter is, of course, logical nonsense: if he is not Raoul, how could he have expected to see Marguerite and then be surprised by not seeing her real face, and vice versa? The surprise works when only one of the partners is deceived in this way. Does, however, something like a double deception not happen in real life? I arrange to meet a person whom I know and who knows me, and, in an intense exchange, I discover that he is not the one I thought him to be and he discovers that I am not the one he thought me to be… The real surprise here is my own: the fact that the other doesn’t recognize me means that I am not myself.

Nonetheless, we still recognize each other because the mask I am wearing for others (the mask embodying what others think of me) and the mask the other is wearing for me (embodying what I think of him) are in some sense more truthful than what is behind the mask. How can this be? Here the dimension of the big Other enters: the mutual “what others think of me” (what I think of him, what he thinks of me…) is replaced by (or sublated in) “what the big Other (a virtual entity presupposed by both of us) think of me and him.”

Returning to Katla, we can thus say that, in the case of an Id-machine, a changeling represents (not an other but) me (its creator) for the others. Although it is the image on an other, it stands for me, for my fantasy universe. As such, a changeling signals the malfunctioning of the symbolic big Other: the big Other is no longer a virtual symbolic space, it is a real Thing, a mega-object which no longer possesses its own truth as form, it just materializes our repressed content. This is why the Id-machine is more real that the big Other (it is part of reality) and simultaneously more subjective than the intersubjective space proper of the big Other (the Thing mirrors/realizes our subjective fantasies). The Id-machine is a first step towards the prospect of a wired brain, an Other which fully exists and desubjectivizes me since, in it, the very limit of external reality falls.

The best-known project moving in this direction is Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and eight others, and dedicated to developing implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), also called a neural-control interface (NCIs), mind-machine interface (MMIs), or direct neural interface (DNIs). All these terms indicate the same idea of a direct communication pathway, first, between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device, and, second, between brains themselves. What kind of an apocalypse announces itself in the prospect of the so-called “post-humanity” opened up by a direct link between our brain and a digital machine, what the New Age obscurantists call Singularity, the divine-like global space of shared awareness? One should resist the temptation to proclaim the prospect of a wired brain an illusion, something that we are still far from and that cannot really be actualized. Such a view is itself an escape from the threat, from the fact that something New and unheard-of is effectively emerging. One thing is sure: we should not underestimate the shattering impact of collectively shared experience. Even if it will be realized in a much more modest way than today’s grandiose visions of Singularity, everything will change with it.[11] Why? Because with Neuralink, the big Other is no longer an enigmatic Thing outside us (like Solaris or Katla); rather, we are directly IN the Thing, we float in it, we lose the distance that separates us from external reality.

This, then, is what Katla is about: a community of a small town is in crisis due to a natural disaster and only a few residents remain there whose symbolic links are deeply perturbed. They can no longer rely on the big Other as the neutral space of symbolic exchanges, and, to supplement this failure, they get more and more caught in the cobweb of mutual fantasies that intrude into their reality, so that this reality is losing its consistency. Id-machine is a fiction, of course, but it is a fiction with real effects, and we can observe and measure these effects in how many people react to the pandemic or to heat domes and floods. In conspiracy theories and other paranoiac constructs, changeling-like entities are treated like parts of reality. The potentially liberating aspect of the appearance of changelings is that what is conflated in our usual experience (a person in front of us and our fantasy projections onto her/him) gets clearly separated, making the job of critique somewhat easier.

[1] Resumed from https://screenrant.com/vikings-season-4-ragnar-death-revenge-explained/.

[2] Did something similar not happen in Poland in 1989 when the military government negotiated with Solidarnosc? Unexpectedly, General Jaruzelski, the head of the government, and Adam Michnik, one of the main dissident figures, became personal friends, their families were regularly meeting till the death of Jaruzelski (on his deathbed, none other than Lech Walesa visited him). Today, with Jaroslaw Kaczynski in power, such a friendship is not imaginable… In short, we can also have polite revolutionaries – a welcome contrast to the obscene brutality of those in power.

[3] I have to ignore here the perverse repetition of the intense relationship between Ragnar and Athelstan in season 5, in the relationship of mutual fascination between Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar’s brutal psychotic son, and bishop Huahmund, a fanatic proto-Jesuit figure of a warrior-monk. He is, like Athelstan, not killed but kidnapped by Ivar who brings him home to Norway.

[4] Another version of the Id-machine is found in Barry Levinson’s Sphere (1998).

[5] I resume here my reading of Solaris from https://www.lacan.com/zizekthing.htm.

[6] Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company 1978, p. 30.

[7] The formula of Tonya Howe (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) on whose excellent seminar paper “Solaris and the Obscenity of Presence” I rely here.

[8] See Jacques-Alain Miller, “Des semblants dans la relation entre les sexes,” in La Cause freudienne 36, Paris 1997, p. 7-15.

[9] Quoted from Antoine de Vaecque, Andrei Tarkovski, Cahiers du Cinema 1989, p. 108.

[10] Created and directed by Baltasar Kormákur and Sigurjón Kjartansson, Netflix 2021. The story is summed up from ‘Katla’ Netflix Review: Stream It Or Skip It? (decider.com) and ‘KATLA’ Ending, & Folklore Origins Explained | DMT (dmtalkies.com).

[11] I’ve dealt more in detail with this prospect in Slavoj Žižek, Hegel in a Wired Brain, London: Bloomsbury 2020.