Universal Horror

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.

– James Baldwin 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Slavoj Žižek has responded to Hamid Dabashi’s piece, ‘Fuck You Žižek!’, which as you can imagine was sent to me by quite a few people, considering my recent history with the Slovenian. In his reply, he is joined by the young philosopher Michael Marder (editor of The Philosophical Salon), who also came under Dabashi’s fire, in the course of he latter’s general attack on Eurocentrism in philosophy.

Žižek’s portion of this short response is in fact largely taken from another piece, also entitled ‘The Breakdown of Rational Argumentation’, published in the International Journal of Žižek Studies in response to (friend of this blog) Sam Kriss. It seems that, whenever someone strongly disagrees with Žižek online, his current favoured approach is to claim rational argumentation itself has broken down. It’s a bold strategy, but does it pay off for him?

 
Žižek’s main criticism of Dabashi here is that he mistakenly attributes a section of text by Frantz Fanon to Žižek himself. It’s a careless and embarrassing mistake, which betrays the fact that Dabashi has an incompetent (or most likely deferential) editor, but this only makes it exactly as bad as most things Žižek has published in the last decade. In fact, to reduce Dabashi’s argument to this glaring error doesn’t do much to address his major point, which of course he has sustained over the length of a book (Can Non-Europeans Think, from which the piece is taken).

 
In truth, Dabashi is an anti-philosopher, in the precise sense, and philosophy must rise to the challenge posed by anti-philosophy, as it has always had to. As Alain Badiou defines it, “Anti-philosophy is any system of thought which opposes the singularity of its experience to the properly philosophical category of truth.” Many of the great thinkers of history have been anti-philosophers: Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Dabashi’s is the classic anti-philosophical move of contrasting philosophy’s claim to a universal discourse of truth to the historical and geographical particularity of certain philosophers. And so he writes: “Young European philosophers like Zabala and Marder, who think that as Europeans they own the world of ideas, feign the authority of their colonial forebears as if anything anyone says anywhere in the world is about them.” Or, more generally, in the original Al Jazeera essay that spawned the book: “There is thus a direct and unmitigated structural link between an empire, or an imperial frame of reference, and the presumed universality of a thinker thinking in the bosoms of that empire.”

 
To his credit, Marder points out the obvious shortcoming here: any critique that proceeds from a presumption about the identity, and concomitant privilege, of the person speaking, is doomed to fail. Marder is himself from an Eastern-European Jewish background, and his ‘forebears’ were killed in pogroms and concentration camps. Does that fact mean his thought is more ‘authentic’? Less ‘Eurocentric’? Must we know the biography of any theorist whose work we pick up – a conclusion which seems backward, not to mention intensely reactionary? As a good friend of mine once put it, “if demand for authenticity means that we have to flash our credentials like we’re going through customs and make our personal lives public before expressing an opinion, then maybe ideology is winning out.” Art and philosophy are supposed to be the antidotes to this kind of thinking. As Ralph Wiley famously put it, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus – unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” By contrast, Dabashi’s mode of critique – proceed first from identity, then to thought – is exactly what reproduces the very thing he has railed against, which is the relegation of literature (philosophical and otherwise) from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to the status of a particularity, of a special interest group which must be taken separately, as its own canon (ethnographic or postcolonial). It must be maintained that a work by Aimé Césaire or Chinua Achebe or V.S. Naipaul has as much of a claim to inclusion in the universal canon of human culture as anything else. Perhaps Dabashi should take more note of the words of his own intellectual hero, Edward Said:

 
“Let us begin by accepting the notion that although there is an irreducible subjective core to human experience, this experience is also historical and secular, it is accessible to analysis and interpretation, and – centrally important – it is not exhausted by totalizing theories, not marked and limited by doctrinal or national lines, not confined once and for all to analytical constructs. If one believes with Gramsci that an intellectual vocation is socially possible as well as desirable, then it is an inadmissible contradiction at the same time to build analyses of historical experience around exclusions, exclusions that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience.”

 
Dabashi’s thought, by contrast, tends towards statements like this:

 
“There are emerging measures of truth from four corners of the world, from the cyberspace to the outer space, with fragile earth and a deeply vulnerable humanity in between. We need to allow these realities to expose themselves and teach us how to read them. From Plato and Aristotle (who saw themselves as Greek, not as “European”), down to subsequent generations of thinkers and philosophers: they were reading their own time, with little to no attention to what their predecessors had said. We too need to do as they did—though with a far more cautionary attitude not to universalise too much our passing particulars.”

 
It hardly needs to be said that this is bullshit. There can be no “measures of truth”, there are only truths themselves, which proceed via fidelity, not ‘measurement’; indeed, how could a truth, eternal and outside the predicates of any one historical situation, be submitted to measurement? Then there is the astonishing move of particularizing Plato and Aristotle, who very explicitly were speaking from the position of what was (is) universal, and not what was specific to “their own time”; moreover Dabashi references other unnamed philosophers who have, like the Greeks, apparently paid “little to no attention to what their predecessors had said”; this certainly isn’t true of Plato or Aristotle, whose philosophy is conceptualised as a break with their predecessors that certainly takes the latter into account – look, for example at both’s repeated engagement with their predecessor Heraclitus. The truth is that to do philosophy is to do the history of philosophy, and the solution to Eurocentrism in the academy is not to reject the contributions made by the canonical philosophers. It is impossible not to sympathize with Dabashi’s complaint that non-European thought has been ignored, or relegated to an object of ethnography, but the solution is not yet more particularism. Indeed, it is not far to go from the idea that philosophers should pay no attention to their own predecessors to Dabashi’s next step, a warning “not to universalise too much our passing particulars”, which is really just another form of the general weakening of philosophy to the status of perspectivism. Here it might be best to point to Badiou again, who writes:

 
“…[I]t is necessary to maintain that every universal presents itself not as a regularization of the particular or of differences, but as a singularity that is subtracted from identitarian predicates; although obviously it proceeds via those predicates. The subtraction of particularities must be opposed to their supposition. But if a singularity can lay claim to the universal by subtraction, it is because the play of identitarian predicates, or the logic of those forms of knowledge that describe particularity, precludes any possibility of foreseeing or conceiving it.”

 
Dabashi is unable to think the universal precisely because he remains attached to a preoccupation with identitarian predicates, with the position from which someone is speaking. A universal is never a sublation of a particularity, but a subtraction from all particularities. In other words, a piece of art or science is universal as a result of the fact that no predicate can pin it down: Greek tragedy speaks to us today because it is not primarily a meditation on the particular experience of an ancient Athenian, but of a human being tout court; James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room – about a homosexual love affair, and written by a gay black man – is as universal a love story as Romeo and Juliet. To collapse a universal truth into an identity is to deny it all of its potency. As Badiou puts it, with a more overtly political edge, in an interview with Peter Hallward (and this long section is worth quoting in full):

 
“When I hear people say ‘we are oppressed as blacks, as women’, I have only one problem: what exactly is meant by ‘black’ or ‘women’? … Can this identity, in itself, function in a progressive fashion, that is, other than as a property invented by the oppressors themselves? … I understand very well what ‘black’ means for those who use that predicate in a logic of differentiation, oppression, and separation, just as I understand very well what ‘French’ means when Le Pen uses the word, when he champions national preference, France for the French, exclusion of Arabs, etc. … Negritude, for example, as incarnated by Césaire and Senghor, consisted essentially of reworking exactly those traditional predicates once used to designate black people: as intuitive, as natural, as primitive, as living by rhythm rather than by concepts, etc. … I understand why this kind of movement took place, why it was necessary. It was a very strong, very beautiful, and very necessary movement. But having said that, it is not something that can be inscribed as such in politics. I think it is a matter of poetics, of culture, of turning the subjective situation upside down. It doesn’t provide a possible framework for political initiative.

 

The progressive formulation of a cause which engages cultural or communal predicates, linked to incontestable situations of oppression and humiliation, presumes that we propose these predicates, these particularities, these singularities, these communal qualities, in such a way that they be situated in another space and become heterogeneous to their ordinary oppressive operation. I never know in advance what quality, what particularity, is capable of becoming political or not; I have no preconceptions on that score. What I do know is that there must be a progressive meaning to these particularities, a meaning that is intelligible to all. Otherwise, we have something which has its raison d’être, but which is necessarily of the order of a demand for integration, that is, of a demand that one’s particularity be valued in the existing state of things …

 
That there is a remnant or a support of irreducible particularity, is something I would acknowledge for any kind of reality … But in the end, between this particularity present in the practical, concrete support of any political process, and the statements in the name of which the political process unfolds, I think there is only a relation of support, but not a relation of transitivity. You can’t go from the one to the other, even if one seems to be ‘carried’ by the other … It is not because a term is a communal predicate, nor even because there is a victim in a particular situation, that it is automatically, or even easily, transformed into a political category.”

 
In short, “the existence of victims cannot by itself found a political process”. Dabashi himself comes close to a point like this when he encourages a movement “beyond postcoloniality”, beyond an ideology of reaction to the terms laid down by Europeans.

“There is a new condition beyond postcoloniality that these Europeans cannot read, hard as they try to assimilate it back into the condition of coloniality. The task is not a mere critique of neo-Orientalism, which always is commensurate with immediate and short-sighted political interests, but to overcome “Europe” as an idea and make it behave as one among any number of other exhausted metaphors, neither less nor more potent, organic, or trustworthy. Europe was “the invention of the Third World,” as Fanon fully realized – both in material and normative senses of the term. I have already argued that we need to change the interlocutor with whom we discuss the terms of our emerging worlds. We should no longer address a dead interlocutor. Europe is dead. Long live Europeans. The Islam they had invented in their Orientalism is dead. Long live Muslims. The Orient they had created, the Third World they had crafted to rule and denigrate, have disappeared. If only those who still see themselves as Orientals would begin to decolonize their minds too.

 
Ironically, this point, and especially the last sentence, which I have italicized, reads as markedly Hegelian to me, relating to a point in the unfolding of the dialectic described in the Science of Logic, which is summarized pithily in the statement “the activity is essentially reactive against itself”. In his Theory of the Subject Badiou takes up this point, writing that “an individual only arrives at his or her singular force within the given circumstances by entering into conflict with the network of inert habits to which these circumstances previously confined him or her”, and thus that we must “come to understand that what raises me up reactively against the active of the Other must also be the active of a force in which the Other is no longer represented”. But of course, Dabashi would chide me for relating his words back to philosophers working in the apparently homogenous Western tradition. He tells us we must learn “to read other thinkers’ thoughts without assimilating them backward into what they already know – like learning a new language that has its own grammar, syntax, and morphology. We should not approximate and assimilate the new language we are learning back into the grammar of the language we already know.” This is a lofty prescription, but even in spite of its hermeneutic ambition, we might ask ourselves whether Dabashi himself follows through on what he encourages from us. Take this paragraph for example, from the ‘Fuck You Žižek!’ essay:

 
“The transmutation of classical Orientalism to Area Studies and thence into disposable knowledge produced at US and European think tanks, I propose, was coterminous with the rise of an empire without hegemony. This epistemic endosmosis – or interested knowledge manufactured in think tanks and percolating into the public domain – is, I suggest, conducive to various modes of disposable knowledge production, predicated on no enduring or coherent episteme, but in fact modeled on disposable commodities that provide instant gratification and are then disposed of after one use only.”

 
Does this Foucauldian discourse, composed in what has been the lingua franca of postcolonial theory for decades, really represent the embracing of a new language free from contamination by the familiar frameworks of European critique, or does it in fact represent the absolute status quo of the academy, the academy of which Dabashi, installed in his Chair at Columbia, could only be called an elite member? Let us end by returning to Badiou, and to a profound and beautiful statement hidden about halfway through Theory of the Subject. It is perhaps even more pertinent now than when it was written, and it bears returning to it time and time again, as a mantra for what must be avoided and what must be done.

 
“Hand over education to those who got tired of antagonism, to all those who, after joining their fate to that of the workers, have since then come back to their prescribed place as intellectuals, and you will make the wish of state functionaries come true by keeping thought for the next two decades within the narrow confines of the usual course of affairs. It will be everyone for him or herself, nobody will pretend to speak for anyone whatsoever.

 
This is the surest road towards the worst. When one abdicates universality, one obtains universal horror.

 
With regard to this mediocre challenge I see two attitudes among the different people I know: to defend oneself or change oneself.”

Only a suffering ape can save us: variations on variations

“God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. Without the concept of a humanly suffering God, all of history remains incomprehensible.” 

F.W.J. Schelling, “Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom”

Sam Kriss’s essay about Harambe, the ape who died, is a weighty intervention into several fields: cultural studies, linguistics, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, theology, anthropology, ethology. Kriss places numerous dots on the field of interpretation, connects some, and leaves many for us to contemplate – in their singularity, their intersections, their divergences. It is not so much a case of the Harambe variations themselves, but where these several Harambes stand in relation to each other, where they stand in relation to us, and finally what discovery – grave, monstrous, profound – the deceased creature installs in us. This is an essay about salvation, and this is an essay about the dead gorilla Harambe. But we have to start elsewhere. 

Part 1: The ape I am, the ape I am not

The famous and beloved gorilla Koko, who is able to recognize herself in a mirror, understands 2,000 words of spoken English, and can communicate through sign language, is also a deeply unsettling proposition. Does this ape, who has passed through the mirror stage and integrated herself into a symbolic system, actually have an unconscious mind? Baudrillard writes, “Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory … the unconscious is the individual structure of mourning in which this loss is incessantly, hopelessly replayed – animals are the nostalgia for it.” The unconscious acts as the melancholic organising principle of an existence forever cut-off from the vital, shameless, impassive experience of animality, of a divine unity between inside and outside, a mythical ‘real’ object we never possessed but believe we must have once, a screaming fever dream from within the torture-house of language. Where, then, is the place for Koko, this impossible animal in the symbolic? Lacan says in his very first Seminar: “…at the junction of the symbolic and the real, ignorance”, a passion greater than love or hate, a passion to not know, to remain in the bliss of not knowing. I look at Koko, and I am reminded of the very different animal that therefore I am, who knows all too much, the “animal lacking in itself”, to quote Derrida. The ape becomes as a fairground mirror, revealing to us the fatal shortcomings our ego elides in the specular image. Koko, the liminal animal, illuminates the path between us and our tragic other: Harambe, the gorilla who was shot and died. 

Through Darwin, we discovered that man’s ancestor was not the Adam of Eden but a series of increasingly ape-like primates stretching back to an ancestor common between us and the gorilla, during the late Miocene epoch, 8 to 10 million years ago. An even more startling discovery was that this changed virtually nothing. We see in the ape everything we have lost to gain everything we have gained. St. Augustine thought that sexuality was in fact part of the penitence for the Original Sin; had Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden, they would have performed intercourse instrumentally, as a simple task, free from the shame, pathology, and aporias of human sexuality. What are the great apes if not this Edenic Adam, this image of lost harmony? As Kriss reminds us, the gorilla Harambe resembles the mythical primal father; the violent, hypersexual totalitarian who controls all the women and experiences no shortcomings in desire, an object of envy and then of contempt, who must be killed but only returns, even more malevolent, in the form of the superego. The ape is a symbol of awe in every sense. Freud realized that the totem animal is firstly a surrogate for the father, and only then morphs into a God; Kriss is too quick to elide the diachronicity of this phenomenon. Before we can attempt to reach God Himself, we must pass through something else. In this case, that something is shit.

Part 2: Of excrement

To his credit, Kriss realizes this dimension of the Harambe situation, relating it via Bataille’s fascination with simian anal scrags. But there is more to be said about this. The great apes are famous for their attitude towards their faeces – touching, handling, throwing; they delight in it. By contrast, humans are very embarrassed about their excrement, flushing it away and inventing infantile names for it which turn out to be even more nauseating than the thing itself. These antithetical relationships denote a fundamental asymmetry between man and ape, and it is not for nothing that faeces is listed in psychoanalysis as one of the partial-objects of the drive. In “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, Lacan remarks that such objects “have no specular image”, that is, they cannot be assimilated into the subject’s narcissistic illusion of completeness. They are objects which, in the subject’s psychical economy, coincide with their own loss, and thus stand for the loss inherent in castration itself. In Freud’s words, “The surrender of faeces in favour of (out of love for) another person, for its part, becomes the model of castration and is the first case in which a part of one’s own body is renounced in the hope of winning favour from a beloved other. And so faeces, baby, penis, all come together to form a single entity, one unconscious concept – sit venia verbo – that of something small that can be separated from the body.” Serge Leclaire, the first Lacanian, notes that Freud’s “unconscious concept” was the prototype for Lacan’s theory of the signifier, and adds: “every separation, cut or loss, whatever it may be (even and especially that of parturition) necessarily refers back to the time of conception, to the phallus; and the phallus, as master signifier, cannot be other than lost with respect to the efficacy of sexual difference.” 

Here then is the unidentified homology between Kriss’s “ape of tumult” and “ape of fixation”. For when we speak of the signifier in psychoanalysis, we are already also speaking in the register of the somatic; psychoanalysis rejects any nature/culture dichotomy, and the psychoanalytic ‘body’ is not, after all, the biological ‘organism’. The drives are a bodily phenomenon caught up with the signifier. As Charles Shepherdson writes, the erotogenic zones of the drive “are understood not as biological parts of the organism, but as anatomical regions which serve as the locus for representation – regions that are not determined in advance by nature, but subject to symbolic displacement and substitution.” “The symptom,” in Lacan’s own words, is “a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element.” If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that there is not somehow an ape of excessive anal freedom and a separate ape of symbolic displacement, of irony. The two in fact exist synchronically, in the image of that terrifyingly uncastrated creature, slinging its faeces with all the purity of the ethical act: the image of Harambe, the slain gorilla.

(On the subject of signification, Kriss writes, “[The ape’s] differential nature is expressed not as a relation between signifiers but as one between ‘Harambe’ and the systematicity of the signifying system itself. As Laclau points out, however, the outside which is from within the system constituted as ‘pure negativity, pure threat to the system’ is in fact ‘the simple principle of positivity – pure being.’ … Something called irony occurs, but rather than being in the form of any kind of antiphrasis or anything that could be understood as a substitution of meanings, meaning itself is challenged by its other.” It is interesting to read this from Kriss, a Derridean, since Derrida famously proclaimed that “there is no outside-text”, no outside of the ‘system’, just more text. The idea of “pure being” is a fiction inherent to the symbolic itself. I am curious, therefore, as to what he is pointing towards with this ‘other of meaning’. It occurs to me to suggest a Lacanian concept here; Lacan initially placed language and jouissance in opposition, but late in his career came to admit a certain type of jouissance within language itself, lalangue, the (truly Derridean) jouissance of a kind of linguistic chaos: homophones, puns, unintended linkages and resonances. It does not seem inconceivable to me that part of what has happened with the word ‘Harambe’ can be illuminated through this notion of ‘jouis-sens’; read the lyric substitutions linked to in Kriss’s piece – here is a form of enjoyment in the signifier itself, the mere act of substitution. Of course, we are again in the zone between the body and the signifier. As Žižek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, “In so far as the sinthôme [the modality of jouissance] is a certain signifier [lodged in an ‘empty signified’, as Daniel Bristow has pointed out] which is not enchained in a network but immediately filled, penetrated with enjoyment, its status is by definition ‘psychosomatic’, that of a terrifying bodily mark.” Inasmuch as jouissance denotes a kind of ‘pleasure in pain’, the storm of Twitter wisecracks denote the strange jouissance extracted not simply from the death of Harambe, but the mass powerlessness, the dull, pointless, quotidian injustice, that the death of this creature symbolises.)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We are not yet done with faeces. 

Part 3: The death of God, and of Harambe, the gorilla

Responding to Lacan’s characterisation of of objet (petit) a – the (partial-) object of the drive – as “ejected” or “dejected” in Seminar XIII, Leclaire, in his own seminar (‘Reckoning with Psychoanalysis’), gives three alternative models: “One could describe it as the body of the child, as a wailing object, fallen from the body of its mother, or as an object designed on the model of an anal object (dropped, expelled, etc); or even as a detached, separated, cut-off object, which is in itself nevertheless indivisible.” 

Leclaire was not the first to draw a similarity between the imperfect, pathetic human body and the expelled anal object. In fact, this was none other than Martin Luther, who sometimes described man as like a divine shit, which fell out of God’s anus. By incarnating himself as Christ, God came to identify with His own excrement, His own partial-object. This is very close to Hegel’s conception of the Incarnation, wherein God alienates Himself from Himself primarily so that he can examine Himself from the perspective of his ‘excrement’, man – and of course, the gaze is itself also a partial-object according to Lacan. I think this is the point at which the theological section of Kriss’s analysis is lacking. He writes, “Christ on his cross cries out: eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was he not told the entire plan?” What Kriss misses is the fact that Christ’s abandonment at the hands of God is the plan, he must make this exclamation, because, as Catherine Malabou writes apropos of Hegel, “The suffering of God and the suffering of human subjectivity deprived of God must be analysed as the recto and verso of the same event … consciousness only represents God because God represents itself; consciousness is only at a distance from God because God distances himself from himself.” This is how Jesus Christ differs from earlier spiritual teachers: where they represent the becoming-essential of the accident, Jesus represents the becoming-accidental of the essence, the universal embodied in the individual; as Hegel noted in his early work Life of Jesus, the moment of Jesus’ aforementioned exclamation is the exact moment when He knew sin and evil, for evil is the separation of the individual from the universal.  

So it is not the case that “the Godhead in its entirety suffered and perished on Golgotha”, but rather that, as Žižek is so keen to remind us at every available opportunity, it was God Himself as transcendent being who died on the cross. This is the ultimate case of Hegelian sublation: God and Jesus are sublated into the third term, the Holy Spirit, whose positive content is identical to the community of believers, and does not exist beyond them. Hegel himself writes, “it is in the finite consciousness that the process of knowing spirit’s essence takes place and that the divine self-consciousness thus arises. Out of the foaming ferment of finitude, spirit rises up fragrantly.” This is the material side of Hegel which is often missed. The Holy Spirit is like the Nation, like the Party. It only exists insofar as people act as though it exists, insofar as people are willing to wager their lives on it. 

Two Harambes died in Cincinnati. The first, Harambe the Father – the primal, savage father of the Oedipal fantasy, for a strange moment ambivalent towards the young child he found in front of him, torn between the protective paternal instinct and the violent urge to reaffirm his supremacy as king of the tribe, to embody the substance which finally makes up the superego. The second, Harambe the Son – the emblem of a presymbolic innocence, a beautiful shamelessness, a unity with the body and its partial-objects, free from the deception of the ego. And through this double death, a sublation. What is left? Not a gorilla, but a spirit, a community, which takes as its substance nothing other than the name of this dead ape, ‘Harambe’; a scream into the void of a dead universe in which weaponised irony is the closest thing to salvation. And under his flag coalesce the injuries and indignities of an international mass of people united by the dull, constant pain of living in this hellscape of a world, where injustices only multiply without end, where to participate in the political process, to stand firm in loyalty to even a moderate democratic socialist, is to be smeared as blind, violent, misogynistic, cultist, to be called responsible for the encroachment of fascism into mainstream politics, a fascism which you always claimed to see present under the surface of everyday, damaged life, only to be branded insane, extremist. And all of this senselessness, all of this pointless violence, all of this hatred, it all gathers, and manifests itself in Cincinnati, on 28th May 2016, in one gunshot wound to the head of a 440-pound silverback gorilla. The flesh made word, the ape who died, the dead ape. Harambe.

We are all castrated, but only Tony Blair is castrated by a Nicolas Cage film

It is not because they turn their back on washed-out existence that escape-films are so repugnant, but because they do not do so energetically enough, because they are themselves just as washed-out, because the satisfactions they fake coincide with the ignominy of reality, of denial.

                   – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

In the last piece I posted here, I quoted from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation by way of an epigraph, and briefly referred to his (in)famous essays on the Gulf War and its apparent unreality. I am always a little wary of referring to Baudrillard, because the reception of his work in the English-speaking world has led to an unfortunate characterisation of the late theorist as a kind of wilfully obscure purveyor of fashionable gibberish, the toast of turtleneck-clad undergrad cod-philosophers worldwide. Worse, Baudrillard will forever be associated with The Matrix, which features and quotes the aforementioned Simulacra and Simulation (Morpheus’ “Welcome to the desert of the real”), and which is based, in Baudrillard’s own words, on a “misunderstanding” of his work. Baudrillard himself realized the poetic irony in the fact that the great philosopher of simulation and (mis)representation was himself the victim of such misrepresentation, and eventually even proclaimed, “I am the simulacrum of myself.”

This isn’t a new idea at all. Lacan defined the hysteric as merely an extreme victim of the “symbolic castration” which assails every human subject from the moment she acquires language. This consists in the experience of a gap between one’s role in the symbolic order – i.e. one’s place in society: citizen, professor, father, etc. – and one’s real, contingent self, the “pissing, shitting, stinking, bleeding bastard” we all, finally, are (h/t Martin Rowson). The locus classicus for (Lacanian) hysteria in literature is more than four hundred years old: the title character’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

I have no name, no title,

No, not that name was given me at the font,

But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,

That I have worn so many winters out,

And know not now what name to call myself!

O that I were a mockery king of snow,

Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,

To melt myself away in water-drops!

The king experiences symbolic castration as a crisis of his very subjectivity: this is hysteria – when my entire existence becomes an experience of extreme doubt as to my place in the world, as to what I amount to once the symbolic titles and names conferred upon me – which always feel somehow external – are subtracted. At the same time, symbolic castration fulfils a crucial, and essentially positive, function in the psychoanalytic account of childhood development. The father can only assume his proper role in the Oedipus complex (his role as symbolic Father, as Father ‘as such’, through whom the Law speaks) if he accepts that he is himself castrated, separated, in his position in the symbolic order, from his substantial being. Within the discourse of psychoanalysis, this symmetry represents the fundamental cycle of civilisation itself: in order to castrate the child, to ensure that the child realises that he or she is not the be-all-and-end-all of the mother’s desire, the father must himself be castrated. The various ways in which this, the Oedipus complex, can go wrong define the clinical structures – neurosis, psychosis, perversion.

This brings us to Tony Blair. There is no doubt in my mind that Blair is, psychoanalytically speaking, a pervert. For Lacan, perversion is not an umbrella category for deviant sexual behaviours, but rather a structure which exhibits certain fundamental characteristics. Where the neurotic represses the knowledge that there is a ‘lack in the Other’, that is, that the symbolic order of language and laws is structured around an impossible, traumatic kernel which cannot be expressed in speech, the pervert goes a step further, disavowing this knowledge outright by identifying himself as that lacking object, as the instrument of the Other’s enjoyment, the object of its drive. So, as the clinical psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe writes, “In this respect, not only does he refuse the Oedipal law with its symbolic castration, he will challenge it as well and replace it by his own rules of engagement. The Oedipal law concerning castration does not apply to him, but only to the poor bourgeois.”[1] Because of this, “certain perverts will live their perversion solely within the realm of the propagation and installation of their law, without ever actually committing sexually violent acts.” [2]

When Tony Blair gave a two-hour press conference on the day of the Chilcot report’s publication defending his actions – even after that inquiry came out with judgements like, “At no stage did Ministers or senior officials commission the systematic evaluation of different options, incorporating detailed analysis of risk and UK capabilities, military and civilian, which should have been required before the UK committed to any course of action in Iraq” – he demonstrated perfectly the disavowal inherent to perversion; a refusal to assimilate a traumatic fact or experience into one’s psychical economy, instead maintaining that this trauma can be ‘plugged’ by the subject himself acting as the object-instrument of the will of the Other. This is why it is the case that when this structure is imported from the sexual field to the political, the pervert perhaps forms the most dangerous of all kinds of subject. As Slavoj Žižek has written, “The pervert claims direct access to some figure of the big Other (from God or history to the desire of his partner), so that, dispelling all ambiguity of language, he is able to act directly as the instrument of the big Other’s will.”[3] Žižek wants to use this to claim that religious fundamentalists can be ascribed a perverse structure, but the reality is that fundamentalists are much more cynical and ideologically weak than he gives them credit for. In reality, it’s leaders like Blair who believe they are acting on behalf of God and History, which is why they’re so terrifying. The pervert erects a fetish object to stand as a ‘veil’ in front of the traumatic Real; listening to Blair on Wednesday, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has reified the moralistic platitude of ‘doing the right thing’ (in removing Saddam Hussein, who, in the report’s words, posed “no imminent threat”) into a fetish object, obscuring the trauma of an invasion which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and destabilized a region which remains ravaged by unimaginable violence every single day.

If Blair was a normal person, he wouldn’t have appeared in public waxing lyrical about the “momentous… agonising” decision-making he faced when he plunged the UK into a pointless and stupid war, or have said things like “What I cannot and will not do is say we took the wrong decision”. A neurotic subject (the closest thing to normal in Lacan’s schema) represses the trauma of castration, of lack, so that what is repressed returns in the unconscious, in dreams, symptoms, slips of the tongue. Even the psychotic subject cannot uphold his foreclosure of symbolic castration, seeing the trauma return in the form of delusions and hallucinations. Only the pervert can maintain disavowal, which is why he almost never seeks treatment from the analyst (and why accounts of perversion are often based on analysis of criminals, instead of clinical patients). We all asked ourselves, “How can Blair continue with this charade? How can he be so crass on this of all days?” It’s because he doesn’t realize what he is. As Dylan Evans points out, “perversion is characterised by the lack of a question; the pervert does not doubt that his acts serve the jouissance of the Other.” In other words, Blair will never accept that he is not the instrument of the will of History. He will never recognize the sordid reality; that he is an reckless, messianic warmonger who is directly responsible for apparently interminable chaos and death.

The melancholia that accompanied the reappearance of the Iraq War in the media, not to mention the presence of Blair’s cartoon goblin face on the telly and the front pages, meant that it was hard to muster much amusement at the best and funniest revelation hiding in the pages of the Chilcot report, namely that MI6 intelligence on Iraqi chemical weapons was provided by a bogus source who probably lifted his account of “linked hollow glass spheres” full of nerve gas from the 1996 Nicolas Cage action thriller The Rock, Michael Bay’s least-worst film. This is actually what got me thinking of Baudrillard in the first place. That ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ is a banal cliché at this point; Baudrillard’s thesis was much more radical: society is now structured and dominated by the proliferation of images and signs, of simulacra, copies which have no original. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” [4] He would not have been surprised by the discovery of details from a Michael Bay film in the documents which justified the Iraq invasion, because he already believed that war had become a masquerade, a performance rehearsed and directed by the world order. This is only an unusually neat case of a general rule: military violence has become indistinguishable from pure spectacle.

Adorno was already aware of something like this in the 40s, in the passage up there from Minima Moralia. The problem with escapism is that it offers no real escape, as a film like The Rock shows. In it, the baddie is a Marine General who seizes control of Alcatraz and threatens to launch those aforementioned containers of nerve gas at San Francisco unless the US Government pays $100 million to the families of Recon Marines who died on clandestine missions and whose deaths were not compensated. So we are supposed to feel sympathy for the character, while also supporting the goodies (Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage) tasked with defeating him. This is Hollywood’s idea of ‘depth’. And of course, the rest of the film does not even try to fake this level of apparent complexity. Nothing is plausible, nobody speaks like an actual human being, nothing looks real – in short, just what we expect from this kind of movie. The result is a sort of unholy chimera: a stupid film that thinks it’s clever. This is the real poetic justice in the ignominious appearance of The Rock in the Chilcot report, the reflection of the “ignominy of reality” Adorno mentions. Even the film’s intellectual character – Cage’s chemical weapons specialist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed – ends up having to assume the mantle of the macho, murderous action hero. On this, elsewhere in Minima Moralia, Adorno writes:

“A certain gesture of manliness, be it one’s own, be it that of another, deserves mistrust. It expresses independence, surety of the power of command, the silent conspiracy of all men with each other. Earlier one anxiously called it, awe-struck, the whims of lords, today it is democratized and is played by film heroes for the benefit of the lowliest bank employee […] In Oxford one can differentiate between two kinds of students: the “tough guys” and the intellectuals; the latter are equated almost without further ado to those who are effeminate. There is a great deal of evidence that the ruling class polarizes itself according to these extremes on the road to dictatorship. Such disintegration is the secret of integration, of happiness of unity in the absence of happiness. In the end the “tough guys” are the ones who are really effeminate, who require the weaklings as their victims, in order not to admit that they are like them.”

The reference to Oxford points to the homology between the exaggerated masculinity of the action film and the exaggerated masculinity of our political leaders. This is something which Jacqueline Rose has written about recently, with regard to Brexit. She argues persuasively that both campaigns were based on an idea of masculine control and assurance which has only hindered the political process, turning it into a homosocial competition between elite males. In layman’s terms, a dick-measuring contest.

So we can castrate our leaders all we want; we can point to their failures, their stupidity, their manifest ridiculousness. We can publish a two-million word inquiry into the most disastrous British foreign policy expedition in living memory wherein it is suggested that crucial intel was provided by a prankster and based on a Nicolas Cage movie. And yet our leaders continue to strut into photo ops, into press conferences, into parliament, waving the phalluses they are certain they possess in front of our now-desensitized faces. Our next Prime Minister will be a woman, but a woman whose policies will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Anyone sceptical about the Oedipal facet of politics would do well to read Tom Whyman’s exegesis of the strangely maternal relationships at work in the Tory party right now. In Seminar XX, Lacan famously said, “There are men who are as good as women. It happens.” When it comes to politics, we might add that there are also women who are as bad as men. It is obvious to everyone sane that a female prime minister is no feminist victory if her government will be disastrous for those women at the highest risk in the UK – migrants, the poor, the disabled, single mothers. If there is the possibility for a better politics, a politics which might break us out of the terrible rut in which we have found ourselves, perhaps it depends, not on whether our leaders have dicks or not, but on the realization that, in the final analysis, none of us really do.

[1] Paul Verhaeghe (2001). “Perversion II: The perverse structure.” The Letter, 23, 77-95. 89.
[2] Ibid. 84.
[3] Slavoj Žižek (2007). How to Read Lacan. New York. 116.
[4] Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor. 2.

Brexit is not taking place (and three more theses on what is happening)

The simulacrum now hides, not the truth, but the fact that there is none, that is to say, the continuation of Nothingness.

– Jean Baudrillard, “Radical Thought”

Four theses on Brexit:

  1. Brexit is not taking place.

The referendum was the perfect platform for the expression of abstract anger, because it was a completely abstract proposition. Nobody was ever really clear on what the nature of Britain’s relationship to the EU was – there was a lot of talk of ‘unelected’ politicians, but never a concrete exposition of exactly what impact these people had on Britain’s governance and economy, and consequently there was never any image of what leaving the EU actually meant, beyond empty sloganeering. The figure of £350 million sent to Brussels each week was the statistic most readily bandied around, and it doesn’t even really matter that the real figure is probably only 40% of this, because when numbers are that big, nobody can actually conceptualise them anymore, let alone in relation to the vast sums which characterize the economy of a wealthy nation. At that point all you have is a big number. Of course, it was never in the interest of the Leave camp to provide genuine specificity, when it was so much easier to fan the flames of broad national discontent. ‘Brexit’ became a mercurial signifier, to which could be attached any kind of frustration: with government, with the state of the country’s institutions, with social change, with whatever the British ‘way of life’ had become. Convince people that at least some of their problems are attached to an alien force – be it the EU or immigrants (more on them later) – and they will jump at the chance to excise it.

This is the sense in which Brexit is not taking place: the same sense in which Jean Baudrillard famously proclaimed that the Gulf War did not take place. ‘Brexit’ is meaningless. Nobody knows what it actually looks like. So, immediately after the vote we heard Nigel Farage disavowing the claim, strongly associated with Leave and distributed in their campaign material, that the money Britain provided to the EU could be transferred wholesale to the NHS. Likewise, Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan MEP quashed the idea that Brexit meant an end to free movement of labour from the EU. Nobody seems sure when Article 50 is going to be triggered, and nobody knows who is going to do it. With the Tory leadership in limbo, there isn’t currently anyone in place to lead this strange manoeuvre. Unlike in a general election, there is no manifesto, nothing to explain what the future is supposed to be, what the relationship between Britain and Europe is supposed to look like now. We can’t attach any concrete meaning to the word ‘Brexit’. It’s everything and nothing at all, a simulacrum hiding, not the reality of leaving, but the reality of a political void.

 

  1. The conceptual immigrant is the fantasy at the heart of Brexit.

I am tempted to say that immigration is the Real of Brexit. Lord Ashcroft’s polls, as well as the vox pops across the news channels in the wake of the vote, seem to suggest that it was central to the reasoning behind a great number of leave votes, and while some voices on the leave side have been keen to declare that there were several other reasons to exit the Union, the campaign has certainly been conducted in the register of anti-immigration zeal. The idea that immigrants are the cause of the problems faced by people in the poorer parts of the United Kingdom is one of the most insidious lies ever to gain traction in the media, and its dissemination has been allowed to go unchecked, even to snowball, because it is much more convenient for the government to have the blame placed on a homogeneous foreign body than on the tremendous social damage entailed by austerity and neoliberal policy. Our immigrant is the ‘conceptual immigrant’, much like Zizek’s ‘conceptual Jew’ – an obscure object, an empty framework within which fantasy, in the strict psychoanalytic sense, operates; simultaneously a welfare scrounger and a thief of jobs, dehumanised and yet quietly powerful. As Sean Homer writes (after Zizek), within such a fantasy, “what holds communities together is the attribution of excessive enjoyment to other or alien groups”. It’s the immigrants who are experiencing the enjoyment which rightly belongs to us, the British. Leave voters have spoken of a loss of identity, and one of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that identity is nothing but an imaginary construct, putty in the hands of ideological narratives. The fantasy of a return to a harmonious, pre-EU social whole can only be sustained if the immigrant is imputed this power, the power to both threaten identity and appropriate enjoyment. As demonstrated by the fact that anti-immigration sentiment is strongest in areas with the fewest immigrants, the ‘conceptual immigrant’ of British discourse is an empty fiction.

 

  1. ‘Old people are racist’ is a flawed conclusion.

I will admit that I was one of many young people whose immediate reaction to the vote was a feeling that my future had been hijacked by a generation who won’t have to live with consequences of what has happened. But complaints about ‘old, white racists’, which have become the go-to for certain factions of the liberal commentariat, are extremely limited. For one, they demonize a social group who are in the most vulnerable position they have ever been, victims of the scythe of austerity slicing through social care. But more fundamentally, they eschew any kind of structural analysis of why anti-immigration and anti-globalisation fervour has gripped so much of the population (and not just the elderly). One elderly leave voter interviewed by the BBC in Sheffield referred to the lack of industry in the city: “everything’s gone, everything’s going” was her summary. “We should come first”, said another. Clearly what has animated these voters’ decisions is not blind racism, but the feeling that vast swathes of the country have simply been left behind. These people feel they count for nothing in the grand scheme of Westminster politics. The vacuum left by the gutting of industry in the 1980s has not been replaced with anything at all, and austerity has only intensified national inequality. While we can say that this abstract frustration was misdirected at the EU, converting it into a free-floating xenophobia, devoid of any relation to economic conditions and government policy, is equally shortsighted, and anathema to the kind of analysis which the Left should be conducting.

 

  1. The centre cannot hold.

Mao wrote that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos: the situation is excellent.” The idea is that moments of uncertainty open up gaps in the social fabric, in which radical movements can install themselves, capitalising on the fragility of the political edifice. I wish I could share his revolutionary enthusiasm at this moment in British history, but all signs seem to be pointing towards Brexit being a boon for the far right, not the far left. The tenor with which the campaign was conducted, and its inescapable association with Nigel Farage – the loudest and most long-established Eurosceptic in current British politics – mean that the vote will be (and indeed already has been) taken as a sign that far right politics is back on the table in Britain. Already, we have heard numerous reports of racist abuse across the country. Far right demonstrators in Newcastle have called for repatriation. Eurosceptics Tories, emboldened by this result, generally represent the right wing of their right wing party. David Cameron, the emblem of the management-professional Tory, the soi-disant “liberal conservative” who supported causes like gay marriage, has been dethroned by a gamble he took in the belief that the Eurosceptic wing of his party could never rally the national support they needed. This moment has to be read as a collapsing of the centre of British politics.

 
This is why the behaviour of the Labour right in the aftermath of the vote has been so craven and foolish. An apparent mandate for quasi-fascism does not signal that it is time to kick out the socialists, and chatter over Jeremy Corbyn’s “competence” is meaningless. Corbyn was elected with an enormous majority, and in his time as Leader of the Opposition has attracted a party membership boom, instituted a majority-female Shadow Cabinet, helped force U-turns on Saudi prisons, blocked Osborne’s £4.5bn welfare cuts plan, got firefighters to re-affiliate with the party after 11 years, reinstituted nationalisation of the railways as party policy, and exposed Cameron’s weaknesses time and time again in PMQs. He was consistently clear on Labour’s position: remain and reform. The fact that he refused to base Labour’s campaign around immigration is a credit to him, not a weakness. A return to the centre means giving up ground to neoliberal economic policy and legitimised xenophobia. This move failed spectacularly for Miliband, so it is hard to understand why members of the PLP think it will work now. A Labour party which assumes the position of ‘conservatism with a human face’ will only ensure Tory power for decades. What is needed now is thinking on a bigger scale. ‘Reconnecting with voters’ cannot be used as code for drifting rightwards. The misery of the British population is directly related to the effects of austerity, and only unabashedly socialist policy is able to address this. A centrist Labour party will only prolong the wider national problem; it cannot conceivably solve it. Whether the parliamentary Labour party is going to be the platform to deliver the opposition needed is uncertain: although the membership are clearly in favour, so many of Corbyn’s MPs are so vehemently opposed to their leader, so rabid in their pursuit of any opportunity to oust him, that it will be difficult to cement Labour as a truly socialist organisation. But a socialist opposition is the only Left solution, and it is the only solution left.