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, October 30, 2023

Wovon Man Nicht...

Slavoj Žizek, "Saying, Keeping Silent, and Showing: Notes on a Scandal in Frankurt"
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen. (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.)[1]

In this final proposition of his Tractatus Wittgenstein prohibits the impossible. Why should one prohibit something that is already in itself impossible? The answer is relatively easy: if we ignore this prohibition, we produce statements which are (for Wittgenstein) meaningless, like speculations about the noumenal domain in Kant’s philosophy. (Lacan qualified the prohibition of incest in a similar way, claiming that its function is to render the impossible possible: if incest has to be prohibited, it means that it is possible if we violate this prohibition.) There is, however, an ambiguity in Wittgenstein’s proposition which resides in the double meaning of “kann”: it can mean simple ontic impossibility, or a deontic prohibition (“you cannot talk/behave like that!”). Wittgenstein’s proposition can thus be read in a radical ontological sense intended by Wittgenstein himself – there are things impossible to talk about like metaphysical speculations –, or in a conformist-deontic sense – “Shut up about things you are not allowed to talk about!”

The opposite of this conformist wisdom is the ethical imperative:

Wovon man nicht schweigen kann, darueber muss man sprechen. (Whereof one cannot be silent, thereof one must speak.)
Horrors like the Holocaust or Communist purges or colonial disasters cannot be passed over in silence (as it happens in today’s China); we have to bring them out.

The opposite of this ethical injunction is a tautological cynical wisdom:
Wovon man nicht schweigen kann, darueber muss man schweigen. (Whereof one cannot be silent, thereof one must be silent.)
Which means: even if you know you cannot keep quiet about it, do not talk about it since talking about it would pose too much of a threat to you.

What, then, about the opposite tautology?
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man sprechen. (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should speak.)
It defines poetry: poetry is an attempt to put in words what cannot be said, to evoke it, and this holds precisely for traumatic events like the Holocaust: any prosaic description of its horrors fails to render its trauma, and this is why Adorno was wrong with his famous claim that after Auschwitz poetry is no longer possible. It is prose that is no longer possible, since only poetry can do the job. Poetry is the inscription of impossibility into a language: when we cannot say something directly and we nonetheless insist on doing it, we unavoidably get caught in repetitions, postponements, indirectness, surprising cuts, etc. We should always bear in mind that the “beauty” of classic poetry (symmetric rhymes, etc.) comes second and that it is a way to compensate for the basic failure or impossibility.

But this is not Wittgenstein’s last word. Already in Tractatus, he introduces another term which works as the opposite of saying (Sprechen), namely showing/displaying (Zeigen). So, we can also say:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, dass zeigt sich. (Whereof one cannot speak, that shows itself.)

The inversion of this statement (Was man nicht zeigen kann, darueber muss man sprechen – What one cannot show, thereof one must speak) is a vulgar common-sense notion since it reduces “showing” to the obvious meaning of “what is evidently present in front of us,” which can be exemplified by seeing the exterior. The argument is then that focusing on how a person appears ignores the deeper spiritual truth of this person, the truth which can only be rendered in words describing this truth. Against this line of argumentation, one should focus on the elementary Hegelian question: not what is the secret beneath appearance? but why does a thing need to appear in the first place?

In short, Wittgenstein’s “showing” has nothing to do with “appearing” as opposed to what is beneath it. “Showing” is the form of appearance ignored when we focus on what appears. Here, Wittgenstein follows Marx and Freud who both claim that the true secret is not the Beyond of what appears but the form itself (the commodity form, the form of dreams). The difference between zeigen (showing) and schweigen (keeping silent) is that while schweigen is an act (I decide not to speak, which implies that I am already within the domain of speech – a stone does not “keep silent”), zeigen happens involuntarily, as a by-product of what I am doing when I speak: I don’t (and cannot) decide what to show.

This insight (formulated by Wittgenstein in many versions, like “what can be shown cannot be said”) should not be read as a hint to some ineffable deep Truth beyond words. What cannot be said is fully immanent to saying; it is the form displayed by saying; it is what we do by saying something. To Wittgenstein’s example of “honesty” we could add “dignity”: if you talk about it, you are NOT dignified or honest, since honesty and dignity can only be shown/displayed by doing it, by acting as an honest or dignified person.

Recall what I have often referred to as the “Hugh Grant paradox,” invoking the famous scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral. As the hero tries to articulate his love to the beloved, he gets caught in stumbling and confused repetitions, and it is this very failure to deliver his message of love in a perfect way that bears witness to its authenticity… In his very failure to speak about his love, he shows/displays it (although we can, of course, also intentionally fake such failures). We are dealing here with Wittgenstein’s version of “there is no meta-language”: a speech act cannot include in what it says its own form, its own act. Jon Elster articulated this feature in his notion of “states that are essentially by-products:
“Some psychological and social states have the property that they can only come about as the by-product of actions undertaken for other ends. They can never, that is, be brought about intelligently and intentionally, because they attempt to do so precludes the very state one is trying to bring about. I call these ‘states that are essentially by-products.’ There are many states that may arise as by-products of individual or aggregate action, but this is the subset of states than can only come about in this way. Some of these states are very useful or desirable, and so it is very tempting to try to bring them about. We may refer to such attempts as ‘excess of will,’ a form of hubris that pervades our lives, perhaps increasingly so.”[2]
Among many examples offered by Elster (like “Good art is impressive; art designed to impress rarely is”[3]), one should mention the topic of authenticity and sincerity: “The terms of sincerity and authenticity, like those of wisdom and dignity, always have a faintly ridiculous air about them when employed in the first person singular, reflecting the fact that the corresponding states are essentially by-products. /…/ Naming the unnamable by talking about something else is an ascetic practice and goes badly with self-congratulation.”[4] Elster mentions the “unnamable,” which brings us back to Wittgenstein: sincerity and authenticity cannot be named; they can only be shown/displayed by way of practicing them—a lesson that deals a heavy blow to the cult of authenticity, which pervades our culture since the 1950s and which was given a new push by the trans-ideology (“be true to yourself; don’t be afraid to assume what you feel you are”).

Following Bertrand Russell’s famous quip against Wittgenstein (who, according to Russell, managed to say quite a lot about the unsayable[5]), could we not say that Elster also manages to say quite a lot about the dimension that he proclaims “unnamable”? However, this reproach misses the point. Of course, we can talk about what a speech shows/displays, but not in the first person. I cannot designate myself as authentic, as having dignity, etc. – if I do this, I undermine my authenticity or dignity which can only show itself in how I act. The statement “there is no meta-language” should be understood in this precise sense: I cannot include my position of enunciation, which may display dignity, into my own enunciated content.

And does something similar not hold for both poles of today’s global political space, namely authoritarian nationalism and cancel culture? On September 29, 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “indicated that Moscow is prepared for discussions concerning Ukraine, provided they take into account the situation on the ground and Russia’s security interests.” Which means: we are prepared for peace negotiations, provided Ukraine accepts that territories occupied by Russia are part of Russia and provided it radically changes its politics (Russia demands a “de-nazification” of Ukraine)… in short, provided Ukraine capitulates. The Western liberal approach is often problematized along the same lines by anti-colonial critics. For the Western liberals, democratic exchange is formulated in terms that secretly impose the logic of Western democracy-and-freedom, so that joining liberal pluralism effectively amounts to a capitulation to Western values… Lavrov asserts the logic problematized by anti-colonial critics in its pure form. In Wittgensteinian terms, Lavrov speaks about negotiations, but what he shows/displays with his speech is the very opposite of negotiation, that is, a brutal exclusive enforcing of one’s own position.

Along the same lines, I can easily imagine Hegel having a repeated intellectual orgasm in bringing out the (for him) obvious necessity of the reversal of inclusivity and diversity into a procedure of systematic exclusion: “How long can parts of the liberal Left keep maintaining that ‘cancel culture’ is but a phantom of the right, as they literally go round cancelling gigs, comedy shows, film showings, lectures and conversations?” What permeates “cancel culture” is a “no-debate-stance.” A person or a position is not only excluded; what is excluded is the very debate, a confrontation of arguments, for or against this exclusion. Hegel would have mobilized here what Lacan called the gap between enunciated content and the underlying stance of enunciation: you argue for diversity and inclusion, but you do it by excluding all those who do not fully subscribe to your own definition of diversity and inclusion, and so, all you do is permanently exclude people and stances. In this way the struggle for inclusion and diversity gives birth to an atmosphere of Stasi-like suspicion and denunciation where you never know when a private remark of yours will lead to your elimination from the public space… Don’t we get here an extreme version of the joke about eating the last cannibal? “There are no opponents of diversity and inclusion in our group – we’ve just excluded the last one…” So, again, in Wittgensteinian terms, while cancel culture speaks about diversity and inclusion, it shows/displays a stance of extreme exclusion.

Such inversion of inclusion into exclusion also obeys a deep Hegelian dialectical reversal, namely the transposition of an external threat into immanent antagonism, as it was perspicuously noted by Elster apropos the notion, fashionable today, of democracy under threat: “We can reverse the common dictum that democracy is under threat, and affirm that democracy is the threat, at least in its short-termist populist form.”[6] Exactly as in the case of cancel culture, the threat to inclusion and diversity are inclusion and diversity themselves, when they are practiced in a way that shows/displays extreme exclusion.

But enough about cancel culture in the usual culture-critical sense. Much more interesting is the cancel culture that pervades our media in the weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel. My speech at the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt book fair was twice interrupted by Uwe Becker, Antisemitismusbeauftragter in the state of Hessen, and then triggered an avalanche of attacks on me. Why? First, some facts about my speech. I first wrote a totally different one, but a day or two after the Hamas attack, I was contacted by Juergen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt book fair, who asked me to also mention the war in my talk. (I was probably expected to just join the chorus of all those uttering unconditional support for what the State of Israel is doing.) The new speech was sent in advance to Slovene organizers and to Frankfurt (Boos included), and it was suggested to me to change some formulations (which I did)… In short, there was no surprise in my speech: those concerned were acquainted with it.

So why the attacks on me? It took me some time to get it: not because I was too extreme but, precisely, because I was very balanced and moderate! The fear was that such an approach might seduce some who oscillate in their full support of Israel to see also Palestinian suffering. It is easy to condemn someone who chants “Death to Israel”—much easier than someone who unconditionally condemns the Hamas attack AND draws attention to its background. Plus, what annoyed my critics is that I quoted (positively) exclusively Jewish names (Moshe Dayan, Simon Wiesenthal, Marek Edelman…).

From the opposite side, I got many messages from West Bank Palestinians who are angry at me for not explicitly stating that, with regard to what is now happening to Palestinians, they should not just display their victimhood. Don’t those in the West Bank also have the right to rage? My rage is at this moment more directed at people like Uwe Becker who enact the most disgusting strategy on behalf of Germany: they who carried out the Holocaust now try to exculpate themselves by advocating Israeli injustice against another group! So, there definitely is a dark underside to the German obsession with standing on the right side now – but let’s go back to my speech. Here is a typical media reaction to it:
“The popular Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek caused a scandal during the opening ceremony. Žižek condemned the terrorist attack by the Palestinian Islamist movement HAMAS on Israel and emphasized the need to ‘listen to the Palestinians and consider their past.’”
First (as is often the case these days), the words between “and” are NOT a quote from my text, although they are presented as a quote. Second, yes, there was a scandal, but was it really me who caused it? Was the true scandal not the way my speech was brutally interrupted twice, the second time even by an intruder approaching me on stage? All this for doing what? For just stating the obvious, what we can read every day in our media: that there is no solution to the Middle East crisis without resolving the limbo status of the Palestinians. To get an idea of the despair of ordinary West Bank Palestinians, suffice it to remember the wave of suicidal individual attacks on the streets (mostly) of Jerusalem a decade or so ago: an ordinary Palestinian approached a Jew, pulled out a knife and stabbed (usually) him, knowing well that s/he will be instantly killed by other people around. While I condemn these acts, I have to note that there was no message in them, no shouting of “Free Palestine!”; there was no large organization behind them (even Israeli authorities didn’t claim this), no large political project, just pure despair. I was at that time in Jerusalem and my Jewish friends warned me about this danger, advising me that, if I see it coming, I should shout loudly “I am not a Jew!” And I remember clearly that I was deeply ashamed of having to behave like this, knowing well that I wasn’t sure what I would really do in such a situation…

The main candidate for the stupidity of the year is, in my view, the title of a recent text in Die Zeit magazine: “The evil of Hamas has no context.” What this means became clear in a claim I heard all the time in Frankfurt: “There are no two sides here. There is only one side.” OK, but we can assert this only if we look at all the “buts” and see how the “one” side replies to them. One of the panelists in the opening ceremony even openly stated that she hates the word “aber” (“but”) – but is “but” not the polite way to disagree in a dialogue? “I see and respect your point, but…”

Analyzing the context does NOT imply excuse or justification. There are numerous analyses of how the Nazis took power, and they do not in any way justify Hitler; they just describe the confused situation exploited by Hitler to take power. Hitler didn’t emerge from a vacuum: back in 1920s and 30s, he offered anti-Semitism as a narrative explanation of the troubles experienced by ordinary Germans: unemployment, moral decay, social unrest… behind all this stands the Jew, i.e., evoking the “Jewish plot” made everything clear by way of providing a simple “cognitive mapping.” Does today’s hatred of multiculturalism and of the immigrant threat not function in a homologous way? Strange things are happening, financial meltdowns occur which affect our daily lives, but are experienced as totally opaque – and the rejection of multiculturalism introduces false clarity into the situation: it is the foreign intruders who are disturbing our way of life…

Back to my speech, the only comparison that I effectively evoke in it is the strange similarity between Hamas and the radical stance of the last Netanyahu government. Here is the quote:
“Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas who lives comfortably in Dubai, said on the day of attack: “We have only one thing to say to you: get out of our land. Get out of our sight … This land is ours, al-Quds [Jerusalem] is ours, everything [here] is ours … There is no place or safety for you.” Clear and disgusting – but did the Israeli government not say something similar, although not in such a brutal way? Here is the first of the official “basic principles” of Israel’s present government: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.” Or, as Netanyahu stated, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens” but “of the Jewish people – and only it2. Does this “principle” not exclude any serious negotiations? Palestinians are strictly treated as a problem, the State of Israel never offered them any hope, positively outlining their role in the state they live in. Beneath all the polemics about “who is more of a terrorist” lies as a heavy dark cloud the mass of Palestinian Arabs who are for decades kept in a limbo, exposed to daily harassment by settlers and by the Israeli state. /…/ Perhaps, the first thing to do is to clearly recognize the massive despair and confusion that can give birth to acts of evil – in short, there will be no peace in the Middle East without resolving the Palestinian question.”
I was reproached here for ignoring a crucial fact: the Israeli government did not just say the same thing in a more civilized way; the difference is also in content – they do not demand an indistinct killing of the opponents. My reply: true, but while Hamas and its allies call for throwing the Jews out of the Israeli land, Israel is now effectively doing this, gradually but inexorably depriving West Bank Palestinians of their land. Even the US voiced concern over the West Bank settlers’ attacks on Palestinians: the State Secretary Antony Blinken “conveyed concern” about it, and, as expected, he got principled promises that Israel would look into it. How will this be done with Itamar Ben Gvir as the National Security Minister is not clear: Ben Gvir announced on October 7, 2023 that his ministry was purchasing 10,000 rifles to arm civilian security teams, specifically those in towns close to Israel’s borders around the country, as well as in mixed Jewish-Arab cities and West Bank settlements.

While, as far as I know, nobody disputed any facts that I referred to in my speech, the main counter-argument was that this moment (when Jews are massively dying) is not the right one for a broader analysis. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this argument: at that moment (ten days after the Hamas attack) when many more Palestinians were dying than Jews. But why did I ignore the horrors taking place in Gaza? Recall the very last lines of Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper: “Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln / Und die andern sind im Licht. / Und man sieht nur die im Lichte / Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht (“And some are in the darkness / And the others in the light / But you only see those in the light / Those in the darkness you don’t see.”) This is (more than ever, perhaps) our situation today, in the self-proclaimed age of modern media: while the big media were until recently full of news about Ukraine war, the world’s deadliest wars went unreported. Now that the spotlights are on the Middle East, one cannot but note that they are almost exclusively on Gaza and not on the West Bank where perhaps something much more crucial is going on. To avoid a misunderstanding here: I am of course appalled at how the IDF bombing of Gaza causes more “collateral damage” on civilians than on the Hamas forces, but I think Israel doesn’t want to re-occupy Gaza – the true event is going on in the West Bank: the gradual “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian population. So, I cannot but agree with Judith Butler: “From systematized land seizures to routine airstrikes, arbitrary detentions to military checkpoints, and enforced family separations to targeted killings, Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death, both slow and sudden.”

After the new Netanyahu government, this multi-dimensional pressure grew almost exponentially, from direct killings by settlers to bureaucratic-administrative measures. Among dozens of video clips, let me mention just one, by far not the most violent but, for me at least, the most depressing. It depicts a settler harassing a group of Palestinian farmers working on their land, humiliating and abusing them, claiming this land is not theirs, scattering around their sacks with seed, plus provocatively standing breast to breast with some Palestinians and shouting at them things like “Why do you not hit me? Are you a man?” – all this with the silent presence of some Israeli soldiers in the background who do nothing… Can we imagine what would have happened if a Palestinian farmer were to do this to a group of settlers?

But this is a detail, and much worse things are happening, like groups of settlers sending messages to Palestinian homes that they better leave their dwelling in next 24 hours and that, if they don’t do this, they as a rule really come and beat, or even kill, the Palestinian family. Here is one case: two Palestinians were killed after Israeli settlers opened fire on a funeral procession near the West Bank town of Qusra, south of Nablus. “Ambulances were carrying the bodies of four Palestinians who were shot dead a day earlier, reportedly also by Israeli settlers, when settlers arrived at the scene and attempted to halt the funeral procession. One of the ambulance drivers was quoted by Haaretz as saying that ‘the settlers were waiting there. They blocked the gate, started firing on us and other people who had come for the funeral.’” The official reaction? “The IDF said that a number of Palestinian casualties were reported following clashes between settlers and Palestinians in the village where the funeral was about to take place, and that the incident is under investigation.” A lone incident? “There have been repeated incidents over the past year of young settlers violently raiding villages in rampages that have led to a handful of Palestinian deaths, scores injured and significant property damage. The assailants are rarely arrested, let alone prosecuted for their actions.” If this is not a form of terror, then this word has no meaning at all.

As long as the traditional secular Zionist settler-colonial ideology predominated, the state (not so) discreetly privileged its Jewish citizens over Palestinians; however, it put great efforts to sustain the appearance of a neutral rule of law. From time to time, it condemned Zionist extremists for their crimes against Palestinians; it limited the illegal new settlements in the West Bank, etc. The main agency playing this role was the Supreme Court – no wonder the Netanyahu government, which took over in 2022, pushed through a judicial reform depriving the Supreme Court of its autonomy. The large protests against judicial reform are the last cry of secular Zionism: with the new Netanyahu government, anti-Palestinian violence (the pogrom in Huwara, the attacks on the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, etc.) is no longer even formally condemned by the state.

The fate of Ben-Gvir is the clearest indicator of this shift. Before entering politics, he was known to have a portrait in his living room of Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred twenty-nine Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others in Hebron, in what became known as the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre – and this person condemned by Israel itself as a racist is now the Minister for National Security who should safeguard the rule of law… The State of Israel, which likes to present itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, has now de facto morphed into a “halachic theocratic state (the equivalent to Shari’a law).”

In Lacanian terms, obscene violence is the surplus-enjoyment we gain as a reward for our subordination to an ideological edifice, for the sacrifices and renunciations this edifice demands from us. In today’s Israel this surplus-enjoyment no longer dwells in the obscene underground; it is openly assumed “the surplus-enjoyment (as killing Palestinians, burning their homes, evicting them from their homes, confiscating their lands, building settlements, destroying their olive trees, Judaizing Al-Aqsa, etc.) becomes explicitly articulated. While these forms of surplus enjoyment were previously viewed as an exception in official Zionist discourse, they are now considered as the norm.”

A direct proof? On a TV panel on August 25, 2023, Ben Gvir, the Minister for National Security, said: “My right, my wife’s right, my kids’ right to move around freely on the roads of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is more important than that of the Arabs.” Then, turning to panelist Mohammad Magadli, the only Arab on the panel, Ben Gvir said: “Sorry, Mohammad, but this is the reality.” And he was right: yes, this IS the reality in the West Bank. In short, anti-Palestinian violence is no longer even formally condemned by the state.

The Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres said to the Security Council on October 24, 2023:
“It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing. But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
The reaction was, as expected, not only furious critique and a threat to “teach the UN a lesson” but a call for Guterres’ immediate resignation: “The United Nations secretary general has now shown his true colors and has shown the world that he is biased and conflicted and not the correct person to lead the United Nations through this tense period in the history of our world.” The cynicism of this reaction is breath-taking: “The people of Israel (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin) have suffered a major terror attack.” While the Israeli government explicitly treats non-Jews as second-class citizens, they are now all of a sudden addressed as victims of Hamas…

In order to find a way out, the first thing to do is to fully admit that we are dealing with a true tragedy: there is no clear simple solution, except those advocated by Ben Gvir and Hamas: the annihilation of the other side. My condemnation of the Hamas attack is clear and unequivocal. How can I be accused of supporting Hamas violence when the title of my interview for Die Zeit is: “Die Hamas muss vernichtet warden” (“Hamas has to be annihilated”)? The truly horrible thing is that the area east of Gaza where Hamas went on a murderous spree was mostly populated by Jews who advocated peaceful coexistence with Palestinians, some of them even engaged in helping those who suffered in Gaza.

This is not the place to analyze the dark origins of Hamas which, according to many sources, was first supported by Israel in order to split Palestinians between the more secular PLO and the Islamist Hamas: “Most of the time, Israeli policy was to treat the Palestinian Authority as a burden and Hamas as an asset. Far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich, now the finance minister in the hardline government and leader of the Religious Zionism party, said so himself in 2015. According to various reports, Netanyahu made a similar point at a Likud faction meeting in early 2019, when he was quoted as saying that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.” In short, Israel made here the same mistake as the US in Afghanistan, supporting radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden to defeat the Soviet-backed regime.

Yuval Harari is right to emphasize that the principal goal of the Hamas attack was not just to kill Jews but to prevent any chances for peace in foreseeable future: it was a war started with the goal to eternalize war itself. And Harari is also right to add that Israel should avoid this trap laid by Hamas since “down the road peace will only come if Palestinians can live dignified lives in their homeland.” It is important to emphasize the last words – “in their homeland” –, since Harari thereby accepts that the land occupied by Israel is also the Palestinian homeland. To put it in consciously naïve terms: Israel should treat its Palestinian citizens as its citizens. To the dismay of many of my “Leftist” critics, I agree with the central claim of a letter co-signed by Harari with David Grosman and others: “there is no contradiction between staunchly opposing the Israeli subjugation and occupation of Palestinians and unequivocally condemning brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians. In fact, every consistent leftist must hold both positions simultaneously.” I made exactly the same claim in my speech: “one should go to the end in BOTH directions, in the defense of the Palestinian rights as well as in fighting anti-Semitism. The two fights are two moments of the same fight /…/ Those who think there is a ‘contradiction’ in this stance of mine suffer a total moral disorientation.” I found a graffiti on a wall in Ljubljana, my home city: “If I were a Palestinian from the West Bank, I would also be a Holocaust denier.” This, exactly, is the logic one should avoid at any cost, if for no other reason because it reproduces the Zionist argument: “a holocaust survivor has the right to ignore minor injustices the State of Israel is committing against Palestinians.”

One of the catastrophic effects of the ongoing war in the Middle East is also that some key distinctions are blurred: the pro-Israeli West (the US especially) now present the defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression and the defense of Israel against Hamas as moments of the same global war, as if Israel = Ukraine. On the opposite pseudo-Leftist side, there are already claims that the attacks (of Russia, of Hamas) are both justified defense measures which exploded against long histories of oppression: in short, Donetsk is the Russian West Bank… But why do I use the term “pseudo-Leftists”? Because, in the old Marxist tradition, I claim that the Left structurally CANNOT be anti-Semitic, since it knows that anti-Semitism relies on the basic ideological operation of transposing immanent social antagonisms onto an external agent to be liquidated. (Which is also why populism tends to be anti-Semitic: populism doesn’t question the antagonism inscribed into the basic social order but focuses on “corruption” and similar things.) I am well aware that there definitely ARE anti-Semitic tendencies in today’s Left, but as such they are reliable signals that there is something deeply wrong with this Left, and this holds from Stalin to Hugo Chavez, who was reminded by none other than Fidel Castro to avoid anti-Semitism. In the early years after the October Revolution, Jewish presence at the top of political power was very strong; things turned around with Stalin’s ascent to power. And the same holds for today’s Leftists who shout anti-Semitic slogans…

So, or the last time, back to my speech. Here is another typical report on it:
“The Mayor of Frankfurt, Mike Josef, described Žižek’s speech as disturbing. ‘Freedom of expression and culture of debate are important. But when Žižek quoted the SS man, Reinhard Heydrich, he crossed a line that goes beyond provocation,’ he believes. Frankfurt’s Vice-Mayor Nargess Eskandari-Gruenberg was particularly bothered by the fact that Slavoj Žižek’s speech linked the current terror of Hamas to the unresolved conflict of the Palestinians, thereby relativizing it. ‘I find this relativization intolerable and unpalatable.’ In her view, nothing can justify terror.”
The second reproach is obviously ridiculous: of course, there is a link between the Hamas attack and the unresolved status of the Palestinians in occupied territories. Hamas exploits the plight of the Palestinians in the same way Hitler exploited the discontent of ordinary Germans in the post-World-War-I crisis. As for the first reproach (quoting Heydrich crosses a line that goes beyond provocation): yes, my speech was again interrupted when I mentioned Reinhard Heydrich, but the insinuation that I am somehow putting Heydrich on the same line with Israel totally misses the point. Why did I mention Heydrich? I briefly evoked a line of thought which I developed in my books and talks (also in Tel Aviv, where it was accepted without problems). Something strange is re-emerging today. While Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, some of his supporters (like the Proud Boys) are anti-Semitic, but is this really an inconsistent stance? When Trump signed the controversial executive order on anti-Semitism, John Hagee was there, the founder and National Chairman of the Christian-Zionist organization Christians United for Israel. At the top of the standard Christian-conservative agenda, Hagee has made statements that definitely sound anti-Semitic: he has blamed the Holocaust on Jews themselves; he has stated that Hitler’s persecution was a “divine plan” to lead Jews to form the modern state of Israel; he calls liberal Jews “poisoned” and “spiritually blind”; he admits that that the preemptive nuclear attack on Iran that he favors will lead to the deaths of most Jews in Israel… Israel should be very suspicious of such support, which has a long history.

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.

Reinhardt Heydrich himself, the mastermind of the holocaust, wrote 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.”[7] Zionist anti-Semitism at its purest and clearest… Is this just a thing of the past? Here is what some Rabbis teaching at the (state-financed) Eli Academy, an elite school where many army officers are educated, said:
“With the help of God, slavery will return. The non-Jews will want to be our slaves. Being the slave of a Jew is the best. They must be slaves. They want to be slaves. Instead of just wandering the streets foolish and violent, harming each other, now his life begins. This people around us have genetic problems. Ask an average Arab what he wants to be. He wants to be under occupation. /…/ They don’t know how to run a country or anything. /…/ Yes, we are racists. We believe in racism. Races have genetic characteristics. So we must consider how to help them. /…/ The Holocaust was not about killing the Jews. Nonsense. And that it was systematic and ideological makes it more moral than random murder. Humanism, secular culture – that is the Holocaust. The real Holocaust is pluralism. To believe in man – that is the holocaust. /…/ The Nazi logic was internally consistent. Hitler said that a certain group in society is the cause of all the evil in the world and therefore it must be exterminated. /…/ For years, God has been screaming that the Diaspora is over but Jews aren’t obeying. That is their disease that the Holocaust must cure. /…/ Hitler was the most righteous, Of course, he was right in every word he said. His ideology was correct. /…/ Their (Nazi’s) only error was who was on which side.”[8]
Although such an extreme stance is, of course, explicitly advocated only by a tiny minority (and still Netanyahu visited the Eli Academy, as can be seen in the video report!), it brings out the underlying premises that sustain what the State of Israel is now doing in the West Bank… However, is the comparison of what happens now in Israel with Nazism not a ridiculous exaggeration? Here, we encounter the true ethical greatness of Jews. If a non-Jew makes this comparison, he is instantly dismissed as anti-Semitic – and I share this dismissal; I think those of us who are non-Jews have no right to do it. But what if such an observation comes from important Jewish figures themselves? What if a top former IDF general says that the Israeli army is becoming a party to war crimes in the West Bank in processes that resemble Nazi Germany?

Speaking to Israel’s public broadcasting station Kan about the situation in the West Bank, Amiram Levin, a retired general, the former head of the Israeli army’s Northern Command as well as deputy chief of the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, said that “there hasn’t been a democracy there in 57 years, there is total apartheid”: “the IDF, which is forced to exert sovereignty there, is rotting from the inside. It’s standing by, looking at the settler rioters and is beginning to be a partner to war crimes.” When asked to elaborate on the specific “processes,” Levin invoked Nazi Germany. “It’s hard for us to say it, but it’s the truth. Walk around Hebron, look at the streets. Streets where Arabs are no longer allowed to go on, only Jews. That’s exactly what happened there, in that dark country.” Of course, there is a large gap that separates the situation of Palestinians in Hebron from the situation of Jews in the Nazi Germany; of course, Levin exaggerates, but precisely as a Jew who knows what Nazi anti-Semitism means, he has the right to detect an extremely dangerous tendency in what goes on in the West Bank.

As long as there are Israelis like Amiram Levin, there is hope. It is only with their solidarity and support that the West Bank Palestinians have a chance… However, the lesson of all this is a very sad one. In a memorable passage in Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, Ruth Klüger describes a conversation with “some advanced PhD candidates” in Germany:
“One reports how in Jerusalem he made the acquaintance of an old Hungarian Jew who was a survivor of Auschwitz, and yet this man cursed the Arabs and held them all in contempt. How can someone who comes from Auschwitz talk like that? the German asks. I get into the act and argue, perhaps more hotly than need be. What did he expect? Auschwitz was no instructional institution…You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps, I hear myself saying, with my voice rising, and he expects catharsis, purgation, the sort of thing you go to the theatre for? They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable.”[9]
The extreme horror of Auschwitz did not make it into a place that purified surviving victims into ethical non-egotistical subjects. So, again, the lesson to be drawn here is a very sad one: we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to clear the mess and open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation. For the same reasons, I also think the entire debate about Holocaust versus colonialism that flourished a couple of years ago in Germany (which of the two was worse?) should be rejected as something profoundly obscene. Holocaust was a unique terrifying mega-crime; colonialism caused unimaginable amount of death and suffering. The only correct way to approach these two horrors is to see the fight 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 Holocaust themselves, reducing an unheard-of horror to a bargaining chip in 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 breath-taking horror done on behalf of civilizing others. They are all incomparable monstrosities that cannot and shouldn’t be reduced to mere examples to be “compared” – each of them is in some sense “absolute” in its evil.

To conclude, let us return to the six versions of Wittgenstein’s proposition, as all six are relevant for our topic.
-“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent)” enjoins us to respectfully pass over the (often manipulated or even falsified) sordid details of the horrors taking place instead of shamelessly using them to gain political profit. The information about Hamas beheading 40 Jewish babies (with Biden even claiming he has seen the photos) was withdrawn by the Israeli government itself as unverified); on the other side, I am inclined to doubt the Hamas claim that an Israeli rocket killed 500 in a Gaza hospital.

-“Wovon man nicht schweigen kann, darueber muss man sprechen (Whereof one cannot be silent, thereof one must speak)” correctly turns the initial proposition around. Information about criminal acts committed by our own side should be unconditionally rendered public and not ignored in order not to hurt our Cause.

-“Wovon man nicht schweigen kann, darueber muss man schweigen (Whereof one cannot be silent, thereof one must be silent)” describes precisely such an avoidance: we know we shouldn’t keep silent about a horror, but we do it out of fidelity to a false Cause.

-“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man sprechen (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should speak)” enjoins us to tell the truth (about our crimes, as Amiram Levin did) even if it is difficult to sustain.

-“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, dass zeigt sich (Whereof one cannot speak, that shows itself)” indicates how the way we are pursuing our goals often undermines these goals: not to mention Hamas, Israel pursues peace with de facto ethnic cleansing. (Incidentally, occupiers are as a rule always for peace: peace means that they can safely control the area they occupy.)

-And, finally, “Was man nicht zeigen kann, darueber muss man sprechen” (“What one cannot show, thereof one must speak)” outlines our duty to bring out also the hidden background of ongoing shocking events. Who and what strategies lie behind acts that appear suicidal?
[1] Quoted from the bilingual edition Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus (umass.edu).

[2] Jon Elster, “States that are Essentially by-products,” in Social Science Information, vol. 20, no. 3 (1981).

[3] Op.cit.

[4] Op.cit.

[5] In Russell’s “Foreword” to the original English edition of Tractatus, available in Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus (umass.edu).

[6] Jon Elster, ‘Some Notes on “Populism”, Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 46, no. 4 (2020).

[7] Quoted from Heinz Hoehne, The Order of the Death’s Head. The Story of Hitler’s SS, Harmondsworth: Penguin 2000, p.333.

[8] See also a report in Embracing racism, rabbis at pre-army yeshiva laud Hitler, urge enslaving Arabs | The Times of Israel. As expected, the defense of the Rabbis was that their statements were taken out of context: they wanted precisely to show how to help Arabs…

[9] Ruth Klüger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, New York: The Feminist Press 2003, p. 189.

Monday, October 23, 2023

More Zizek from Turkey (Işık Barış Fidaner)

Slavoj Žižek, "Sarcasm vs. Irony/Wave " (Google translated from Turkish)
Peter Sellars's version of Cosi fan tutte is based on this basic premise: Alfonzo, a philosopher in one passionate love, and Despina enact the impasse of their own hopeless love by engaging in experiments with other young couples. This reading strikes at the heart of Mozartian irony/sarcasm, which should be opposed to sarcasm. In the simplest terms:
The cynic privately mocks the beliefs he professes abroad (you preach to sacrifice for the country in the public eye, you pile up the gains in the private sphere...).
In irony/wave, the subject takes a subject much more seriously than he shows it to the outside, and actually secretly believes in something he makes fun of in the public eye.

Alfonzo and Despina, the cold-blooded experimental philosopher and the demoralized servant girl, play the ridiculous erotic mayhem of the other poor couples like instruments in order to confront their own traumatic bonds as passionate lovers.

We can now formulate the unique feature of Mozartian irony/wave: in it, even though the music has become completely autonomous from the words, it does not yet lie.

Mozartian irony/wave is the only moment when the truth actually 'speaks in the language of music', it is the music that calls out to you from the Unconscious, which makes Lacan say 'Moi la verité, je parle' (I am the truth, I am speaking).

And only today, in our postmodern age, which is claimed to be devoid of faith because it is overflowing with irony/wave, the Mozartian irony/wave reaches its full reality and confronts us with this embarrassing fact:
Not deep down, but in our actions, in our social practice, we believe much more than we are aware of.
From the book Freedom: An Incurable Disease

Turkish: Işık Barış Fidaner

See “Sikhzamane: Sarcasm and Irony” by Slavoj Žižek


Slavoj Žižek, "Who is guilty?" (Google translated from Turkish)
It is a moral disaster that people refuse to consider the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An interesting maneuver is evident in the reactions to the October 7 Hamas attack: anyone who talks about the need to understand the circumstances in which the attack took place – Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the iron blockade of the Gaza Strip – is accused of supporting or rationalizing Hamas terrorism. Do we realize how strange this ban is? I think this is a moral disaster.

When I say understanding the conditions, I do not mean this stupidity disguised as deep wisdom: "It means you have not heard the story of the person you call your enemy." Can it be said that we regard Hitler as an enemy simply because his story has not been heard? When I get to know and “understand” Hitler better, won't I consider him even more of an enemy? Moreover, the stories we tell ourselves are not the truth – they are often a fabricated lie to rationalize the real horrors I inflict on others. The truth is outside, it is in the real deeds we do. Every aggressor who attempts ethnic cleansing presents himself as a victim reacting to this or that attack. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant lost his own humanity the moment he said Israel was fighting “human animals.”

Hamas leader Ismail Haniye, who was enjoying his time in Qatar, said on the day of the attack: “We have only one thing to say to you: Get out of our country. "Depart from us... This country is ours, Jerusalem is ours, everything [here] is ours... There is neither place nor safety for you."

Clear and disgusting. But wasn't that what the Israeli government said about the Palestinians in Gaza, albeit in more measured language? Here is the first of the official ‘fundamental principles’ of the current government in Israel: “The Jewish people have the exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. “The Government will develop and promote settlements in all regions of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, in the Negev, in the Golan, and in Judea and Samaria.” In the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Israel is not a state for all its citizens, it is a state for the Jewish people – and its own.”

How can Israel blame the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate when there is such a "principle" encoded in national laws? Doesn't this "principle" already exclude every possibility of serious negotiations? Are Palestinians left with any option other than violent resistance? The state of Israel has offered no hope or positive vision that creates a place for Palestinians in society; He treated them as a problem that could only be solved through force and law.

So, if the second Nakba occurs, who will be responsible? Should the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or the secret service be blamed? In interviews in Dror Moreh's documentary The Gatekeepers ( 2012), all six chiefs of Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet voice warnings about the dangers posed by politicians. After meeting with Shin Bet chiefs, Moreh told the Economist newspaper that he decided that Netanyahu "poses a major threat to the existence of the state of Israel." He continued: “I read in their eyes that our leaders actually do not want to solve this problem. They do not have the courage, courage, will and courage that a leader should have. I do not place the blame entirely on Israeli leaders. I think Palestinian leaders are suffering from the same terrible disease. “I think the fact that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity, to paraphrase Abba Eban, applies to both sides.” So is the IDF – remember the condemnation of “refuseniks” who refused to serve in the West Bank. The process of pure politicization carried out in Israel by the last Netanyahu government is included in the nationalist-fundamentalist struggle that surrounds the world, it is a populism that opposes even the legal state.

In 1989, Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal wrote: “The perennially victorious state of Israel cannot rely on 'victim' sympathy forever.” The great anti-communist recruit Arthur Koestler expressed the same problem differently: “If power corrupts people, the opposite is also true; Being oppressed also corrupts victims, albeit in more subtle and tragic ways.” This problem applies to both sides of the ongoing war. First-generation Israeli leaders openly admitted that their claims to the land of Palestine could not be based on universal justice: it was known that in the late 1940s and 1950s there was an outright war of conquest between two groups with no chance of mediation. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, wrote: “Everyone sees the serious problems in Arab-Jewish relations. But no one sees that there is no solution to these problems. There is no solution! There is a gulf in the middle and it is impossible to make ends meet... We, as a people, want to own this country; Arabs, as a people, also want to own this country.”

On April 29, 1956, a group of Palestinians crossed the Gaza border and plundered the harvest in the fields of the Nahal Oz kibbutz. Roi, a young Jewish member of the kibbutz who was standing guard in the fields, rode his horse against the Palestinians to chase them with a staff in his hand. The Palestinians captured him, took him to the Gaza Strip, and his body was destroyed, which the UN returned the same day.

IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan spoke at Roi's funeral the next day: “Let's not blame the murderers today. How can we blame them for having a deadly grudge against us? They had been living in Gaza's refugee camps for eight years, and we were showing off the lands and villages where they and their ancestors lived and adding them to our heritage. We must look for Roi's blood within ourselves, not among the Arabs of Gaza. How did we turn a blind eye, how did we refuse to face our fate, how did we fail to see how cruel the fate of our generation was? Have we forgotten that the gates of Gaza are on the shoulders of these young people living in Nahal Oz?

Is such a statement conceivable today? Remember how far we are from years ago, when there was talk of a “land for peace” treaty and a two-state solution, when even the staunchest supporters of Israel now were pressing for Israel not to establish settlements in the West Bank. In 1994, Israel built a wall separating the West Bank, thus recognizing the West Bank as a special entity, as before the Six-Day War (1967).

All this progress, however limited, has now evaporated. Europe needs to have its own voice on this issue, instead of accompanying global cries. Europe can do this because it did so many years ago, because it has always been ready to see the complexity of the situation and listen to all sides. It would be a real shame if this role fell to Putin and China.
Turkish: Işık Barış Fidaner

See “Analysis Ban: Žižek's Frankfurt speech and Žižek baenmayan afendi shojuks” , “Analyseverbot: critic with refined tastes etc. analysis proper” , “The Counter-Oedipal Impulse in the Festival Raid” , “Judas and Hamas” , “The Real Fault Line Separating Israel and Palestine” Slavoj Žižek (trans. Barış Özkul)

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Shanzai - More Byung-Chul Han from Germany

"West-east easing" (Google Translate from German)
We should play more and work less, recommends philosopher Byung-Chul Han. He argues with Asian thinking and yet is entirely in the tradition of the West. A visit to the Karlsruhe University of Design

After the death of God, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, health became a goddess. For example in Karlsruhe? The sun shines here for 1,691 hours a year, which puts it in fifth place among all German cities in a fair-weather ranking by the men's magazine "Men's Health". There is a castle, a park and a zoo, but hardly any cultural attractions and other urban temptations. So leisure activities in the open air are ideal, sport – in short: the vita activa. “If there were a horizon of meaning that went beyond bare life,” says the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, “health would not be able to become so absolute.” But is Karlsruhe really just a place of healthy but bare life? Or maybe one for art and contemplation? These two exercises in particular are being taught at two educational institutions, and by very prominent teachers. The “Center for Art and Media Technology” (ZKM) and the “University of Design” (HfG) are located right next to each other in a faceless, albeit inner-city, district – at first glance you would not think of this area as such an extraordinary concentration of creativity and intelligence confidence.

The hall of a former industrial building in which the HfG has been housed since its founding in 1992 is almost intimidatingly large. The work of students who are enrolled in the subjects of exhibition design and scenography, communication design, art studies and media theory, media art and product design are regularly presented here in the lavishly sized interior. However, one decisive theoretician presides over all of these disciplines that extend into practice: Peter Sloterdijk has been the university's rector for ten years now. He is famous far beyond the academic world through his own television show, successful books and regular features pages. But what is it like to live and work in the shadow of the philosopher king? Who is this Byung-Chul Han, who has held a professorship at the HfG for a year and a half? Han teaches philosophy and media theory, but perhaps the definition of responsibility shouldn't be taken too narrowly. The staff of this institution enjoys great freedom in terms of content - after all, according to the rector's maxim, the university does not appoint teachers with limited subject areas, but rather authors. Especially as an author, Han, who otherwise scrupulously avoids the media spotlight and does not allow himself to be interviewed on the radio or television, has been hard to miss lately. He has already published a number of books, mostly in smaller publishers. However, his essay “Fatigue Society” attracted a lot of attention last year, an unexpected bestseller and the forerunner of the upcoming “Topology of Violence”; The short essay “Shanzai. Deconstruction in Chinese” came out. What all of these books have in common is that they deal with the pressing life questions of our time in a most elegant and clearly formulated way. Academic philosophy doesn't produce texts like this every day.

Byung-Chul Han's office doesn't give the impression that he wants to make himself too comfortable here. On the large architect's table there is only a laptop and the air pump from his bicycle, which he uses to move between the university and his home. Two or three stacks of books in the corner. Hardly any professors who teach here live in Karlsruhe, says Han, and he himself also has a second address in Berlin. On the other hand: What does the difference between Karlsruhe and Berlin mean for someone who has come to Germany from the megacity Seoul? For the Korean, things initially looked tranquil everywhere in Germany and Switzerland, where he lived and taught for several years. But how did Byung-Chul Han come to the German language and philosophy? Where does the energy come from for such a career that led to a habilitation, which is probably unprecedented for an Asian within German humanities? In our case, Han built in special hurdles to the question-and-answer game that underlies every journalistic portrait. Not only does he politely but firmly ask to leave the tape recorder turned off and trust handwritten notes - he also doesn't want to answer the simple question about his age. In Asia, he explains half flirtatiously, half apologetically, the date of birth plays a much smaller role than in the West. A culture that understands the world through its cyclically repeating process approaches neither birth nor death as pathetically as Western thought. No origin stories like in the West, no myths that founded the identity of a society. And Han is already in the middle of his theory of “decreation”, which he also explains in his most recent essay “Shanzai”. The Chinese neologism Shanzai can best be translated as fake and on the surface refers to very tangible things in the world of goods. For example, mobile phones made in China that look more or less similar to their role models and have more or less similar names such as “Nokir” or “Samsing”. Products that gradually evolve from the original, so that the established label “Adidas” first becomes Adidos, Adadas, Adadis, Adis and finally Dasida.

The term forgery only half captures these appropriations of the original, which seem brazen from a Western perspective. After all, Han notes, it is not a one-time act of creation that determines the Chinese idea of ​​the original. There can be no question of a final identity because everything is subject to constant change. Seen through Shanzai glasses, the instance of the unique appears to be just as nonsensical as the category of counterfeit. For example, when it became known that the Chinese terracotta warriors presented by the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology in 2007 were nothing more than replicas that were made on site in China in parallel with the excavation of the ancient figures, the German museum felt compelled to do so deceived and closed the exhibition in disgust. The Chinese had absolutely no idea that they had acted with deceptive intentions or had done anything forbidden; In their eyes, the practice of replicating them was a continuous connection to the ancient production process of the figures, which – whether of old or newer date of manufacture – always fulfilled the same function.

Or the Ise Shrine, the highest shrine in Shinto Japan: millions of believers make a pilgrimage here every year, all in the belief that the sacred building is 1,300 years old. In fact, this temple complex is completely replaced every 20 years. Not only is the building demolished and completely rebuilt; The temple treasures are also removed and replaced: the combustible parts burned, metal parts buried. According to Han, the difference between the original and the copy plays no role at all. Finally, one could also say that the copy is closer to the original than the original itself, “because the older a building gets, the more it moves away from its original state. A copy would, as it were, return it to its 'original state', especially since it is not tied to an artist subject." In any case, UNESCO was not open to such an argument and removed the Ise Shrine from the list of world cultural heritage. And this despite the fact that it is precisely the ceremony of destruction and renewal that makes up the cult value of the pilgrimage site. It can be concluded that the West maintains a museum-like commemoration of dead origins, while the East stands in the middle of a living and cyclically repeating tradition.

But on which of these two sides is Byung-Chul Han, who has already written a book on the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and could therefore be considered a special representative for Far Eastern thought exercises in the European context? “Nonsense,” he waves. «I'm actually not interested in Asian thought at all. I am interested in mental models that are not tied to any cultural environment.» And China? “China is just an alibi,” says Han, “a different model of thinking and existence.” For a proper sinologist, this philosopher's work is not at all interesting; Han's philological and historical work is far too imprecise. And that's exactly how he wants it: For him, Eastern philosophy is above all a tool with which he can loosen the too tightly screwed-in relationships of Western thinking or break them down into their components.

The made-up word Shanzai refers to nothing other than a deconstruction method. “Shanzai,” says Han, “is de-creation,” and that means: Before the fetishized beginnings of the West, before myth, birth and the philosophical axiom, there was always something else – creation means there is a pool to draw from. Once we leave behind the hardened concepts of originality and genius and a creatio ex nihilo, the philosopher hopes, much more flexible thinking could be possible. Philosophy would then relax into a productive game that would lead to completely new results. “We should all,” he demands, “play more and work less. Then we will produce more!” Or is it just a coincidence that the Chinese, to whom both genius and the original are alien, are responsible for almost all the inventions that have shaped our Western culture, from pasta to pyrotechnics?

Byung-Chul Han has now written no fewer than fourteen very different books, so it is not easy to summarize them in a single term. These include monographs about Heidegger and Hegel and those about globalization, death, power and the Western passion story. «Scent of time. A philosophical essay on the art of lingering” is the name of a publication from the year before last – but woe betide the bookseller who gets the idea of ​​classifying the book as a gift book because of its perfumed-looking title! Already here, Han brilliantly formulated a criticism of the restlessness of humans as animal laborers. Han later explained in the essay “Fatigue Society” how the constant pressure of an active life can become our downfall. The realization that the perseverance slogan of positive thinking, prompted by the pressure to increase efficiency, makes you sick, has now long since penetrated the depths of advice literature. Han bases it on pathogenetic principles. A culture that has adopted the phrase “Yes, we can” as a self-confident slogan of eternal ability to be able to do so does not suffer from illnesses such as depression, borderline syndrome or burnout syndrome for nothing. The cause of this exhaustion problem, which comes from within, is the permanent potency of a constant willingness to perform, which is perceived as positivity. The scourge of our time is voluntariness. After all, it is no longer an external, repressive power that led to the deformation of society in the last century. “The disciplinary society,” writes Han, “is still dominated by no. Your negativity creates madmen and criminals. The meritocracy, on the other hand, produces depressives and failures.” In short: The problem today is not the other, but the self (which constantly and emphatically says “Yes!”).

There is no danger from outside, no stranger, no immigrant crosses the boundaries of the individual who is geared towards limitless self-expansion. Byung-Chul Han thus advocates replacing the immunological paradigm (pernicious infection by a hostile virus) with a neuronal one (psychic implosion of the interior). The Hegelian master-slave dialectic has not yet been thought through to its conclusion: If the successful liberation of the slave from the master today consists in the masters also working like slaves - that is, everyone working like slaves - then a promising perspective remains unfulfilled: Everyone, including masters and servants, indulge in leisure! But as long as everyone, including the highest-paid manager, competes primarily with themselves in the absence of an external reward authority, this is just a beautiful utopia.

Oh right! How Byung Chul-Han came to German philosophy and language? How did he become a philosopher in Europe? Who should care, he asks back. Possibly because there were no tuition fees to pay in Germany at the time, or perhaps also because the reading load in philosophy was lower than in literary studies, which actually interested him? In any case, Han only uses Korean as his mother tongue, that is, as the language in which he speaks with his mother when he visits Seoul. Every reader of his books can see for themselves that he has an almost erotic relationship with German and is at home with it today like no other philosopher. Why can he think so well? Who knows - his first studies, still in Korea and over thirty years ago, were in metallurgy. It was primarily about the flexibility of materials.
McKenzie Wark, "Byung-Chul Han: Shanzhai Theory"
There are three kinds of idiots: those who can count, and those who can’t. The ones who can count are obsessed with debunking received ideas and finding the hidden truth behind it. They measure things, calculate, and through the rigorous use of their own idiosyncratic reasoning they know why the earth is flat. Then there’s idiots who want to diverge from received ideas but are more playful, willful, intentionally absurd. Byung-Chul Han reminds us of this kind of idiocy which Deleuze thought characteristic of the philosopher. Is Han this kind of special idiot? Maybe.

As Han writes in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and the New Technologies of Power (Verso, 2017): “Idiotism discloses a field of immanence of events and singularities.” (81) Where intelligent people weigh up the evident facts and reasons, the idiot’s thought is addressed to an outside. There’s a play with language in Han of which I’m quite fond. He takes the consensus language of theory and puts the terms through permutations, opening up possible conceptual spaces outside the familiar, done-to-death ones.

For a start: what if we are not subjects, but projects. No more is it a matter of a subject internalizing external limitations and prohibitions to become productive and normative. To be a project is to be left alone to find one’s own creativity and difference. There’s no corrective agency if you get it wrong. If you get it right, you win the prize. The subject was governed by “I should.” The project is governed by “I can.”

Let’s pause here and ask: for whom might this be the case? It is easy to see why Han’s writing is popular with readers who identify with this problem of being a project, and the depression and burnout that comes from supposedly being completely sovereign, but really reduced to self-exploitation. I could think of myself as a project, for instance.

For others the world of disciplinary constraints has only intensified. The cops don’t look at a well-dressed white weirdo like me for long, but that’s not the case for a lot of others I pass on the streets of New York. The success and limitation of Han’s writing is that it universalizes the experiences of people like me, what I call the hacker class: people whose job is making new information.

Han thinks we are slaves without masters. The dialectic of master and slave did not lead to a dialectical overcoming and supersession, but rather to the totalization of the condition of the slave, universal labor. (Slave is a loaded word in English, let’s note in passing). The master is the one who performs no useful labor, who just enjoys the fruits of the work of others, and is free to pursue games of self-realization with other masters.

If one looks around there sure seems to be plenty of these about, turning their billions into weird follies like personal art museums or crusades to save the world with platitudes. As far as the internal world of the hacker class is concerned, there’s no chance for that. The latter-day slave has no relations with others that are free of purpose. This kind of capitalism – if that is what this still is – exploits not just labor but also our play, our feelings, our communication. In short it exploits our freedom.

Capital has made labor over in its own image. Han: “Capital reproduces by entering into relations with itself as another form of Capital: through free competition. It copulates with the Other of itself by way of individual freedom… [I]ndividuals degrade into the genital organs of Capital.” (3-4) It turned out Capital did not admit a dialectical negation and supersession. Does that mean that the hacker class is merely human capital, through which Capital makes more of itself? Maybe, but maybe not entirely. Maybe there’s a remainder, and maybe class antagonism now takes different forms.

Han: “industrial capitalism has now mutated into neoliberalism and financial capitalism, which are implementing a post-industrial, immaterial mode of production – instead of turning into communism.” (5) This is where Han falls a bit short of the pure immanence of philosophical idiocy to me. Why risk such a daring negation of the dialectic itself to just have it land on boring old [modifier] capitalism? Maybe there’s a novel mode of production laminated onto the old one that needs its own idiomatic language.

Here he reads as if channeling Henri Lefebvre. Han: “In our world, we no longer work in order to satisfy our own needs. Instead, we work for Capital. Capital generates needs of its own; mistakenly, we perceive these needs as if they belonged to us.” (7) And so: “we are being expelled from the sphere of lived immanence.” (7) Han strikes one of his characteristic conservative notes, which arise whenever he invokes a lost totality. That a world of freedom was achieved and has been lost is always a dangerous theme. The moment of freedom was the bourgeois emancipation form religion as transcendent other, which resulted in its replacement by a new one, a transcendent Capital. “Capital is a new God.” (8) Clicking likeis the digital amen.

Han sometimes plays with Hegelian Marxism, as above, and sometimes with Michel Foucault and his epigones. I don’t think digital panopticonis his most interesting coinage. I prefer to call the emergent technics of power the vector, after that glorious idiot Paul Virilio. But I do enjoy the gam of turning Foucault on his ear, although here the precedent is surely Jean Baudrillard.

The digital panopticon outsources Big Brother and turns everything into information as well as a commodity. This has philosophical consequences. Han: “Information represents a positive value; inasmuch as it lacks interiority, it can circulate independently, free from any and all context… The negativity of otherness or foreign-ness is de-interiorized and transformed into the positivity of communicable and consumable differences.” (9) In place of the negativity of otherness comes an affirmation of positive differences.

The vector entails a move from biopolitics to psychopolitics. (A theme from Bernard Stiegler). Han: “Digital psychopolitics transforms the negativity of freely made decisions into the positivity of factual states.” (12) It forecloses the openness of the future. It’s the negation of freedom itself, where freedom would have once been a form of negation. To be free was to join with others who are free from necessity and transform a situation at will.

Disciplinary power was a regime of norms and inhibitions that negated tendencies to difference and pushed the subject to perform as required. It turned out to be rather inefficient, and it made people dependent on constraints from without. Psychopower operates seductively. It is constantly calling on us to share, participate, confide. “Today’s crisis of freedom stems from the fact that the operative technology of power does not negate or oppress freedom so much as exploit it. Free choice is eliminated to make way for a free selection from among the items on offer.” (15) Disciplinary subject moves within a closed system, psychopower makes open projects, which will diverge but only in affirmative ways.

Han puts the Hegelian-Marxist and Foucauldian problematics together. The era of sovereignty, of the power to kill, was the era of agrarian production. The era of biopolitics, of the power to make live, is the era of disciplining bodies for the factory and urban life. But this is too crude now. Psychopower exploits unconscious, affirmative drives instead. What Han stops short at really thinking is whether it emerges out of an era in which the agrarian and industrial are subordinated to a new mode of production based on control of information that may be more than just Capital with modifers.

It seems to me fair enough though to say with Han that Foucault did not get much beyond the biopolitics of managing individuals and populations around regulative norms. His later work on neoliberalism didn’t really flesh out a corresponding technics. Han: “the blind spot in Foucault’s analysis is the technology of power under the neoliberal regime. Foucault did not see that the neoliberal regime utterly claims the technology of the self for its own purposes: perpetual self-optimization…” (28)

Capital – if that is what this still is – became immaterial and non-physical. “Now, productivity is not to be enhanced by overcoming physical resistance so much as by optimizing psychic or mental processes.” (25) Its less about disciplinary and more about aesthetic interventions in the organizing of (a) life. Here Sianne Ngai’s aesthetics categories of the zany, cute and interesting appear as useful in the way they articulate what became of labor, the commodity and the public sphere when production was subordinated to information.

Sovereign power seizes, disciplinary power produces, psychopower teases. But this may be an era of the exhaustion of the psyche as a resource, at least among those of us who belong to the hacker class in the over-developed world. As Dominic Pettman puts it, we’ve passed peak libido. There’s an obsession with productivity cults, forms of self-monitoring and positive thinking, as Melissa Gregg has chronicled. These seem a bit like a certain kind of Protestantism. One where you are left exposed and alone, not with God but with Capital, and called to make an absurd leap into servicing its every need.

The psyche cannot be subjected to positivity entirely. It gets exhausted and depressed, spirals into self-hate. The hacker class has to con itself into long periods offlow, where creative energy spools out into one’s elected medium, but it is as unbiddable as grace. It’s a world rather unlike the one George Orwell foresaw, in that at least in the bubble we inhabit it is much less about external threats and more about a psychopolitics of interior states, and an exploitation of the illusion of freedom to choose how one wants to be Capital’s bitch. (A word I choose to emphasize something Han doesn’t: the apparent feminization of working with information, and the femme-phobic fear of that among a lot of men).

This is a mode of production based less on abstractions of reason than on emotions. Han: “the pressure of acceleration now is leading to a dictatorship of emotion…. Emotions assume dimensions beyond the scope of use value. In so doing they open up a field of consumption that is new and knows no limit.” (46) Work requires not just cognitive competence but also emotional competence.

Work becomes a part of what I call gamespace, a closed world of instrumentalized play. Han: “the realm of necessity comes to colonize the realm of freedom.” (51) What Tiziana Terranova ironically calls free laborbecomes a source of value extraction as well. Happiness used to be found in unproductive things, in excess, luxury, the unnecessary, but all those are articulated to value-extraction too in the guise of competitive games. “As a means of production, gamification is destroying play’s potential to set free.” (52) And most provocatively: “the auto-exploiting subject carries around its own labor camp.” (61) Which corresponds to certain bleak observations in George Perec’s novel W.

The tech on which this all rests, what I call the vector, brings along its own ideological baggage. Rather than enlightenment, it’s about transparency. If enlightenment shed light on previously mystified things, transparency wants to thin those things out into information, leaving nowhere to hide at all. It becomes a kind of fetishism, (what Donna Haraway called code fetishism), as if the informational aspect of any given thing stood in the place of that thing and occluded the materiality of its coming into existence.

Han: “By a fatal dialectic, the first Enlightenment switched over into barbarism. Now, in the second Enlightenment – which appeals to information, data and transparency – the same dialectic threatens to do the same.” (58) It’s a new “barbarism of data.” (59) The original enlightenment had its own statistical obsessions. As Han notes, Rousseau’s general will is a calculus that is supposed to happen without mediation by politics at all – something Hiroki Azuma has already seized upon as an an affirmative model.

Han: “Now communication and control become one, without remainder.” (40) Interestingly, psychopolitics is less dependent than biopolitics on norms and corrections precisely because it has much more extensive information to go on. “In contrast to Big Brother, who could be quite forgetful, Big data never forgets anything at all.” (62) It relies on us being not its subjects but our own projects, quantifying our own actions, making and measuring ourselves in our positivity. It’s a way of being devoid of ethics or truth, because it lacks any point of negation. It never comes up against what is other to it.

The outsourcing of memory to technics changes the relation between past, present and future. Human memory is narrative, and every remembering is also a forgetting, a negation of some other possible past-present relation. Machine memory replaces the mutually exclusive alternatives of narrative arcs with statistical inference. Han: “Hegel, the philosopher of Spirit, would deem the omniscience that Big Data promises to be absolute ignorance.” (68)

Correlation replaces causality with probability. If A then probably (or not) B. This is not a relation of necessity. Only the concept makes knowledge, the concept dwells within things themselves. Absolute knowledge narrates a totality, about the Spirit as world’s interiority. This is the world foreclosed rather than the summation of reason in history. Hegelian thought is a dead dog indeed.

Perhaps the tactics used against the coercive side of enlightenment won’t work against transparency. Romanticism made a fetish of exceptions, of the anomalous, the strange, the different, the weird, the queer, the idiotic. This could include the great man who rises above the herd and masters it, as Romanticism was just as likely to break for reaction as liberation. Foucault is still working this vein in calling for practices of freedom that might bring forth new modes of existence, that are discontinuous with norms, and which generate unnamed subjectivities, relations, qualities.

Han accepts part of this program: “Neoliberal psychopolitics is a technology of domination that stabilizes and perpetuates the prevailing system by means of psychological programming and steering. Accordingly, the art of living, as a praxis of freedom, must proceed by way of de-psychologization.” (79) But it seems to me that the romance of the exception on its own is not enough. Psychopower loves differences, and assimilates them to the extraction of value from subjective states in the name of creativity and liberal self-realization.

In another short text (In the Swarm, MIT Press, 2017), Han expands on the connection between psychopower and social media. “Digital psychopolitics is taking over the social behavior of the masses by laying hold of, and steering, the unconscious logic that governs them.” (80) This too opens with a little wordplay, juxtaposing the concept of the spectacle with respect. The spectacle rewards the voyeur, the gawker, who wants to rubber-neck and sticky-beak. Respect implies distance, reserve, opacity rather than transparency. Han: “A society without respect, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for a society of scandal.” (1)

Civil society involves a looking away from what is private. Social media confuses public and private realms. “Digital communication is fostering this pornographic display of intimacy and the private sphere.” (2) Actually there’s a reversal: the private is exposed, but in the public realm, the gawker can remain an anonymous troll. Respect is not possible here. “Anonymity and respect rule each other out,” and “trust may be defined as faith in the name.” (2)

Han: “Digital windows open not onto a public space but onto other windows.” (16) In the absence of respect, what we get are social media shitstorms, immediate discharges of affect, “communicative reflux.” (3) They are produced by flattened hierarchies and a decline in values. Power might be asymmetric, but respect can be symmetrical. It commands distance.

Sovereignty used to mean commanding others to be silent. But now it’s the power to command shitstorms of outrage, volatility and scandal. Civil society requires a measured stance, but now there’s a lack of bearing and reserve. Han draws on that reactionary standby, Gustave Le Bon and good old bourgeois fear of the swarming masses. Apparently, no spirit can animate the swarm and it doesn’t cohere into a universal subject. Its ways are ludic and non-binding, fleeting patterns rather than enduring organizations. It’s what Baudrillard ironically celebrated as the black hole of the masses. I’m far less inclined than Han to mourn the decline of a bourgeois, patriarchal cultural apparatus. It seems strange to take the old broadcast era regime of the spectacle as on object of nostalgia.

It’s an eerie thought, but what if nobody rules this clusterfuck anymore? Drawing on the language of Hardt and Negri, Han writes: “No one rules the empire. It is the capitalist system itself, which encompasses everyone. Today, exploitation is possible without any domination at all.” (13) This seems far from the case, given the vast differentials of power and wealth, but that the ruling class too is subject to the same corrosive logic is a delirious thought.

Like many amateurs who stray into media theory, Han mistakes surface appearances for forms. Effects are taken as given and routed through permutations on concepts from the philosophical canon. It is simply not the case that social media is a world without intermediaries or unilateral forms of communication and control, as Alex Galloway demonstrated long ago with his study of protocol. Its networks are distributed but protocol can still be non-reciprocal.

Nor is it the case that the undermining of older forms of authority is in favor of a generalized leveling. The exposure of the private workings of the Catholic Church and corresponding decline in respect for it seems no great loss to me. And yet there seem to be no shortage of new forms of authority, such as the charismatic megachurch. If there is a “Gleichschaltung of communication” it may take the form of the sedimenting in place of the culture of a new ruling class, for whom transparency and self-actualization were temporary ideological means to an end.

For Han, as for Jodi Dean, “Transparency means the end of desire.” (25) Transparency forecloses of the future. For there to be not just civil society but for there to be history, there has to be opacity. Actually, as Randy Martin showed, the vector creates the possibility for multiple possible futures to exist at the same time. Volatility, probability and the management of risk certain constrain history to measurable futures, but it now constrains it within a matrix of possible futures in a way the classical model of Capital did not quite anticipate.

Is action still possible? Technology shifts agency from hand to finger. As Vilem Flusser says, it’s a liberation from burden of matter. Action is animated by negation, and the digital offers no material resistance. Its more and more game-like, but it doesn’t realize the freedom of the human as homo ludens, as we’re not free to play. Psychopower draws us into the race. The utopia of play became compulsory optimization, where everything in life is a speed run.

Gamespace is a world based on counting; history is a world about recounting. Gamespace is an additive, homogenous, serial time; history is a time of negation and qualitiative breaks, of kairos. Heidegger’s hand thinks rather than acts, and for him the typewriter already veils the essence of writing, that the hand is the medium of being, that thinking is handicraft. The manual atrophy of digital is making thought impossible.

Heidegger’s thinking as handicraft takes as its avatar the farmer who tills and cultivates from the depths. Who waits and picks the brain-fruit when its ripe. True logos is hidden; digital gamspace is mere shadows on the wall. Respect, distance and seclusion are all foreign to information, which is about transparency and speed. Information is cumulative and additive; philosophical truth is exclusive and selective. Han: “There is no such thing as a mass of truth.” (40)

The farmer stands subject to the nomos of the earth, the primary division that grounds all order. But for Han we are no longer subject to anything, but are our own free projects, but whose freedom to play is itself subordinated to Capital. We are projects perhaps of what Benjamin Bratton calls the nomos of the cloud. The digital turn is leaving the earth, making what I call a third nature. Han plays freely here with tainted concepts. Nazi ontology too makes a fetish of the earth and those who claim to truly belong.

The patriarchal notes in all this weighty earthiness go unacknowledged. Han: “The stone presses downward and manifests its heaviness. But what this heaviness weighs down on is us, at the same time, it denies any penetration into it” (56) Truth is in the hands of those who penetrated it, not the penetrated. The penetrated as the dark hole of profound secrets and silence.

Not all of this seems to me to be inspired philosophical idiocy. More like a philosophical nostalgia confused with nostalgia for philosophy. What is more interesting, and forward-looking is his short essay (Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, MIT Press, 2017). It starts with a contrast between western and Chinese metaphysics at an extremely general level, and in particular from Hegel’s (ethnocentric) view of Chinese culture as dishonest.

This then opens a space for some play with the language of contrasts. There is the western metaphysic of being, essence, discontinuity of events and discrete change. Then there is the Chinese metaphysic of inconstancy, decreation, absence and discreet change. Heidegger’s (western) thought is about deepening paths, versus the Chinese view of continuously variable paths.

The bifurcation continues: truth is adaptability to change (east) rather than an absolute (west). The east is about tendencies of movement rather than the west’s obsession with laws of nature. Consequently, there are concepts of power as situation (east) versus power as sovereign (west). There’s the origin or original in the west versus the east’s continuous creation, where the origin can be decided retrospectively.

In the west, Plato banished the poets. Mimesis is a bad thing in western philosophy but especially when it is not a faithful copy of an origin or original. The image lacks being in the western imagination. For Adorno, the field around an artwork shapes it but it still has an inner depth of truth. To be an artist is to be an originator of a true and unique style. It’s a culture of exclusion and transcendence (west) versus a culture of inclusion and immanence (east).

In the east, it’s about continuous change without a privileged origin and original. Han’s example is Chinese painting, where collectors add their marks and calligraphy. In the west, the work is solitary, unitary and distinct. In the east, the work is social, malleable and continuous. In the west, the best painting has a soul, and reflects the viewer. In the east, the best painting aspires to emptiness, and the viewer is lost in it.

It’s a model of the artwork as flat and empty, ideally a void. “It is not the inwardness of the essence but the outwardness of the tradition or the situation that drives change onward.” (15) In the history of Chinese painting, originals by the master might fall out of favor and be replaced by copies by others. Artists learns through copying. To get a forgery into a collection could make a career. (Everyone collector should get the paintings they deserve.) It is also not unknown for artist to borrow a masterpiece and return a copy of it.

There are two views of the copy available in eastern aesthetics: the exact replica, which might almost be the Platonic copy, but here the copy need not have a lesser degree of being than an original, as there aren’t really originals. The second concept is of reproduction with difference and variation. Like the famous Terracotta Army, mass produced but not identical. The ones sent out to western museums were then modern copies of these copies. Or the famous modern painter Zhang Daqian who caused a scandal in Paris with a show revealed to be replicas of lost paintings known only from descriptions.

While not Chinese, Han, also uses the example of the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan: a copy that is more exact that the original, as it is rebuilt every 20 years. I saw another version of copy as variation in China in the 80s, which was restorations which included improvements. Its an aesthetic of the original preserved through the copying (east) rather than the authenticity of the ruin (west).

Han thinks the Chinese (east Asians in general) would have fewer scruples about human cloning, which anticipates in a weird way a recent story about twins who were born with a genome edited using CRISPR by a Chinese researcher. Han thinks the east has a worldview where life is a cycle with variations rather than something distinct and unique. The west is obsessed with creation, but the east thinks of iteration.

It’s also the difference between operating naturally (east) versus trying to represent nature (west). Maybe I would recode this as a difference between a metonymic and a metaphoric relation between culture and nature. It’s not about mimicking original nature but about elaborating on nature’s own techniques of iteration with variation. Eastern thought, for Han, is already deconstruction.

This classical aesthetic and philosophical background opens up a way for Han to talk about shanzhai, or the copying of western products by Chinese companies, the famous example being cellphones, but there are shanzhai sneakers and even cars. Sometimes they are better than the western originals. One added a feature that could recognize counterfeit money. Han: “Gradually its products depart from the original, until they mutate into originals themselves. Established labels are constantly modified. Adidas becomes Adidos, Adadas, Adadis, Adis, Dasida, and so on. A truly Dadaist game is being played…” (72)

Shanzhai comes from ‘mountain stronghold,’ like in the classical Chinese novel The Water Margin (incidentally Mao Zedong’s favorite). Appropriations and variations on successful novels are not unknown either. The Harry Potter knock-offs are not unique in this. Where it touches on less philosophical, more venal interests, all this is fueling a trade war. Han: “The creativity inherent in shanzai will elude the West, if the West sees it only as deception, plagiarism, and the infringement of copyright.” (78)

It’s a striking essay that does what a work of speculative theory should: pose some questions rather than some answers. But it has its limitations. Like a westerner, Han still treats philosophy as origin for aesthetics as a world of appearances. This shanzhai essay is still within philosophy as a western discourse. Also: eastern discourse, if it truly had the properties Han ascribes to it, would surely have mutated into something else already. It would not reducible to an origin in even as eastern concept. Or rather it might have mutated into several things. It might have deconstructed deconstruction by now.

Han’s most cheeky suggestion is that Mao’s writings were already a kind of shanzhai Marxism (on which see Laikwan Pang). But perhaps the west also has this shanzhai worldview, and corresponding practice, in a minor mode. Maybe it is not so much deconstruction as what the situationists called détournement. And maybe the actual practices of producing concepts in historical time in the west have always been collective acts of détournement. As Han writes in Psychopower: “We would have to think with Marx beyond Marx in order to make freedom – indeed, time that is free – our own.” (51) That was already the program of the Situationist International. Moving on might not be about being faithful to that or any other original critical theory, but iterating and mutating them into new ones.

This seems more promising than some of Han’s more reactionary impulses. Conservatives, having no tradition left to conserve, end up treating yesterday’s reactions against modernity as if they were a tradition and treat them as an origin. But I think Han himself offers a better alternative in Psychopower: “The course our future takes will depend on whether we prove able, beyond the world of production, to make use of the useless.” (52) That would have to be something other than Han’s habit of critiquing the digital in a completely digital way, through binaries of terms, marked negative and positive. This is theory that is itself a media effect rather than a critique of it.