Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France
1. Violence, Irrational and Rational
Two parallels are often evoked apropos the recent violent outbursts in France: the New Orleans looting after Katrina hurricane and May 68. In spite of significant differences, lessons can be drawn from both parallels. With regard to New Orleans, the Paris fires had a sobering effect on those European intellectuals who used New Orleans to emphasize the advantage of the European welfare state model over the US wild capitalism - now we know it can happen here also. Those who attributed the New Orleans violence to the lack of European-style solidarity are no less wrong than the US free-market liberals who now gleefully returned the blow and pointed out how the very rigidity of state interventions which limit market competition and its dynamics prevented the economic rise of the marginalized immigrants in France (in contrast to the US where many immigrant groups are among the most successful). On the other hand, what strikes the eye with regard to May 68 is the total absence of any positive utopian prospect among the protesters: if May 68 was a revolt with a utopian vision, the recent revolt was just an outburst with no pretense to any kind of positive vision - if the commonplace that "we live in a post-ideological era" has any sense, it is here. Is this sad fact that the opposition to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, or at least a meaningful utopian project, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament? Where is here the celebrated freedom of choice, when the only choice is the one between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence, a violence which is almost exclusively directed against one's own - the cars burned and the schools torched were not from rich neighborhoods, but were part of the hard-won acquisitions of the very strata from which protesters originate.
The first conclusion to be drawn is thus that both conservative and liberal reactions to the unrests clearly fail. The conservatives emphasize the Clash of Civilizations and, predictably, Law and Order: immigrants should not abuse our hospitality, they are our guests, so they should respect our customs, our society has the right to safeguard its unique culture and way of life; plus there is no excuse for crimes and violent behavior, what the young immigrants need is not more social help, but discipline and hard work... Leftist liberals, no less predictably, stuck to their old mantra about neglected social programs and integration-efforts which are depriving the younger generation of immigrants of any clear economic and social prospect, thus leaving them violent outbursts as they only way to articulate their dissatisfaction... As Stalin would have put it, it is meaningless to debate which reaction is worse: they are BOTH worse, inclusive of the warning, formulated by both sides, about the real danger of these outbursts residing in the easily predictable racist REACTION of the French populist crowd to them.
So what can a philosopher do here? One should bear in mind that the philosopher's task is not to propose solutions, but to reformulate the problem itself, to shift the ideological framework within which we hitherto perceived the problem. Perhaps, a good point to start with would be to put the recent outbursts into the series they build with two other types of violence that the liberal majority today perceives as a threat to our way of life: (1) direct "terrorist" attacks (of suicide bombers); (2) Rightist Populist violence; (3) suburban juvenile "irrational" outbursts. A liberal today worries about these three disturbances of his daily life: terrorist attacks, juvenile violence, Rightwing Populist pressures.
The first step in the analysis is to confront each of these modes with its counter-violence: the counter-pole to "terrorist" attacks is the US military neo-colonial world-policing; the counter-pole to Rightist Populist violence is the Welfare State control and regulation; the counter-pole to the juvenile outbursts is the anonymous violence of the capitalist system. In all three cases, violence and counter-violence are caught in a deadly vicious cycle, each generating the very opposite it tries to combat. Furthermore, what all three modes share, in spite of their fundamental differences, is the logic of a blind passage à l'acte: in all three cases, violence is an implicit admission of impotence.
A standard Hollywood action film is always a lesson in it. Towards the end of Andrew Davis's The Fugitive, the innocent-persecuted doctor (Harrison Ford) confronts at a large medical convention his colleague (Jeroem Kraabe), accusing him that he falsified medical data on behalf of a large pharmaceutical company. At this precise point, when one would expect that the shift would focus on the company - the corporate capital - as the true culprit, Kraabe interrupts his talk, invited Ford to step aside, and then, outside the convention hall, they engage in a passionate violent fight, beating each other till their faces are red of blood. The scene is telltale in its openly ridiculous character, as if, in order to get out of the ideological mess of playing with anti-capitalism, one has to do a move which renders directly palpable the cracks in the narrative. Another aspect is here the transformation of the bad guy into a vicious, sneering, pathological character, as if psychological depravity (which accompanies the dazzling spectacle of the fight) should replace the anonymous non-psychological drive of the capital: the much more appropriate gesture would have been to present the corrupted colleague as a psychologically sincere and privately honest doctor who, because of the financial difficulties of the hospital in which he works, was lured into swallowing the bait of the pharmaceutical company.
The Fugitive thus provides a clear version of the violent passage à l'acte serving as a lure, a vehicle of ideological displacement. A step further from this zero-level of violence is found in Paul Schrader's and Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, in the final outburst of Travis (Robert de Niro) against the pimps who control the young girl he wants to save (Jodie Foster). Crucial is the implicit suicidal dimension of this passage à l'acte: when Travis prepares for his attack, he practices in front of the mirror the drawing of the gun; in what is the best-known scene of the film, he addresses his own image in the mirror with the aggressive-condescending "You talkin' to me?". In a textbook illustration of Lacan's notion of the "mirror stage," aggressivity is here clearly aimed at oneself, at one's own mirror image. This suicidal dimension reemerges at the end of the slaughter scene when Travis, heavily wounded and leaning at the wall, mimics with the forefinger of his right hand a gun aimed at his blood-stained forehead and mockingly triggers it, as if saying "The true aim of my outburst was myself." The paradox of Travis is that he perceives HIMSELF as part of the degenerate dirt of the city life he wants to eradicate, so that, as Brecht put it apropos of revolutionary violence in his The Measure Taken, he wants to be the last piece of dirt with whose removal the room will be clean.
Far from signaling an imperial arrogance, such "irrational" outbursts of violence - one of the key topics of American culture and ideology - rather stand for an implicit admission of impotence: their very violence, display of destructive power, is to be conceived as the mode of appearance of its very opposite - if anything, they are exemplary cases of the impotent passage à l'acte. As such, these outbursts enable us to discern the hidden obverse of the much-praised American individualism and self-reliance: the secret awareness that we are all helplessly thrown around by forces out of our control. There is a wonderful early short story by Patricia Highsmith, "Button," about a middle-class New Yorker who lives with a mongoloid 9-years old son who babbles meaningless sounds all the time and smiles, while saliva is running out of his open mouth; one late evening, unable to endure the situation, he decides to take a walk on the lone Manhattan streets where he stumbles upon a destitute homeless beggar who pleadingly extends his hand towards him; in an act of inexplicable fury, the hero beats the beggar to death and tears off from his jacket a button. Afterwards, he returns home a changed man, enduring his family nightmare without any traumas, capable of even a kind smile towards his mongoloid son; he keeps this button all the time in the pocket of his trousers - a remainder that, once at least, he did strike back against his miserable destiny.
Highsmith is at her best when even such a violent outburst fails, as in what is arguably her single greatest achievement, Those Who Walk Away: in it, she took crime fiction, the most "narrative" genre of them all, and imbued it with the inertia of the real, the lack of resolution, the dragging-on of the "empty time," which characterize the stupid factuality of life. In Rome, Ed Coleman tries to murder Ray Garrett, a failed painter and gallery-owner in his late 20s, his son-in-law whom he blames for the recent suicide of his only child, Peggy, Ray's wife. Rather than flee, Ray follows Ed to Venice, where Ed is wintering with Inez, his girlfriend. What follows is Highsmith's paradigmatic agony of the symbiotic relationship of two men who are inextricably linked to each other in their very hatred. Ray himself is haunted by a sense of guilt for his wife's death, so he exposes himself to Ed's violent intentions. Echoing his death wish, he accepts a lift from Ed in a motor-boat; in the middle of the lagoon, Ed pushes Ray overboard. Ray pretends he is actually dead and assumes a false name and another identity, thus experiencing both exhilarating freedom and overwhelming emptiness. He roams like a living dead through the cold streets of wintry Venice when... We have here a crime novel with no murder, just failed attempts at it: there is no clear resolution at the novel's end - except, perhaps, the resigned acceptance of both Ray and Ed that they are condemned to haunt each other to the end.
Today, with the global American ideological offensive, the fundamental insight of movies like John Ford's Searchers and Taxi Driver is more relevant than ever: we witness the resurgence of the figure of the "quiet American," a naïve benevolent agent who sincerely wants to bring to the Vietnamese democracy and Western freedom - it is just that his intentions totally misfire, or, as Graham Greene put it: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." Freud was thus right in his prescient analysis of Woodrow Wilson, the US president who exemplifies American humanitarian interventionist attitude: the underlying dimension of aggressivity could not escape him.
The key event of John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra (1934) occurs at a Christmas dinner party at the Lantenengo Country Club, where the novel's tragic hero, 29 year-old Julian English, a wealthy and popular car dealership owner, throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, the richest man in town. Because of this, he becomes embroiled in the middle a serious social scandal, and it seems nothing will right it - the novels ends with Julian's pitiful suicide in a car. As Julian claims in the ensuing conflict over the drink throwing, he did not do it because Harry is the richest man in town, nor because he is a social climber, and certainly not because he is Catholic - and yet all these reasons do play a part in his violent passage a l'acte. In the ensuing flashback, Julian remembers the times when his youth gang would play Ku Klux Klan, after having seen 'Birth of a Nation', their distrust of Jews, etc. In Hollywood of the last two decades, there are numerous examples of such impotent "strikings out," from Russell Banks' Affliction to John Sayles' The Lone Star.
The Lone Star provides a unique insight into the twists of the "Oedipal" dynamics. In a small Texas border town, a long dead body is discovered, he body of Wade, a cruel and utterly corrupted sheriff who mysteriously disappeared decades ago. The present sheriff who pursues the investigation is the son of the sheriff who replaced Wade and is celebrated by the city as a hero who brought order and prosperity to it; however, since Wade disappeared just after a public conflict with the sheriff who replaced him, all signs seem to indicate that Wade was killed by his successor. Driven by a properly Oedipal hatred, the present sheriff thus tries to undermine the myth of his father by way of demonstrating that his rule was based on murder. Here, we encounter the first surprise: we are dealing with three, not two, generations. Wade (superbly played by Kris Kristofferson) is a kind of Freudian "primordial father," an obscene and cruel master of the city who violates every law, simply shooting people who do not pay him; the hero's father crime should thus be a law-founding crime, the excess - the illegal killing of a corrupted master - which enabled the rule of law. However, what we learn at the film's end is that the crime was not committed by the hero's father: while innocent of the murder of Wade, he brought corruption to a more "civilized" level, replacing the outright brutal corruption of his "larger-than-life" predecessor with a corruption entwined with business interests (just "fixing" things here and there, etc.). And it is in these replacement of the big "ethical" founding crime with small corruption that resides the finesse of the film: the hero who wanted to unearth the big secret of his father's founding crime, learns that, far from being a heroic figure whose illegal violence grounded the rule of law, his father was just a successful opportunist like others... Consequently, the final message of the film is "Forget the Alamo!" (the film's last words of dialogue): let us abandon the search for big founding events and let bygones be bygones. The key to the film's underlying libidinal economy resides in the duality between the hero's father (the law-and-order figure) and Wade, the obscene primordial father, the libidinal focus of the film, the figure of excessive enjoyment whose murder is the film's central event - and does the hero's obsession with unmasking the guilt of his father not betray his deep solidarity with the obscene figure of Wade?
Clint Eastwood's Mystic River stands out here because of the unique twist it gives to such violent passages à l'acte. When they were kids growing up together in a rough section of Boston, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) spent their days playing stickball on the street. Nothing much out of the ordinary ever happened, until a moment's decision drastically altered the course of each of their lives forever. This primordial, »founding,« act of violence that sets in motion the cycle is the kidnapping and serial raping of the adolescent Dave, accomplished by the local policeman on behalf of a priest - two persons standing for the two key state apparatuses, police and church, the repressive one and the ideological one, "the Army and the Church" mentioned by Freud in his Crowd Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Today, twenty-five years later, the three find themselves thrust back together by another tragic event: the murder of Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter. Now a cop, Sean is assigned to the case, while, in the wake of the sudden and terrible loss of his child, Jimmy's mind becomes consumed with revenge. Caught up in the maelstrom is Dave, now a lost and broken man fighting to keep his demons at bay. As the investigation creeps closer to home, Dave's wife Celeste becomes consumed by suspicion and fear, and finally tells about it to Jimmy. As the frustrated acting out, twice a murder occurs: Dave kills a man engaged in homosexual activity with a boy in a car; Jimmy kills Dave, convinced that he murdered his daughter. Immediately afterwards, Jimmy is informed by Sean that the police found the true killer - he killed a wrong man, his close friend.
The movie ends with a weird scene of family redemption: Jimmy's wife, Annabeth, draws her family tight together in order to weather the storm. In a long pathetic speech, she restores Jimmy's self-confidence by praising him as the strong and reliable head of the family, always ready to do the necessary tough things to protect the family haven. Although this symbolic reconciliation, this Aufhebung of the catastrophe of killing the wrong man, superficially succeeds (the last scene of the film shows Penn's family watching the Irish parade, restored as a "normal" family), it is arguably the strongest indictment of the redemptive power of family ties: the lesson of the film is not that "family ties heal all wounds," that family is a safe haven enabling us to survive the most horrendous traumas, but, quite the opposite, that family is a monstrous ideological machine making us blind for the most horrendous crimes we commit. Far from bringing any catharsis, the ending is thus an absolute anti-catharsis, leaving us, spectators, with the bitter taste that nothing was really resolved, that we are witnessing an obscene travesty of the ethical core of family. (The only similar scene that comes to mind is the finale of John Ford's Fort Apache, in which John Wayne praises to the gathered journalists the noble heroism of Henry Fonda, a cruel general who died in a meaningless attack on the Indians.) And, perhaps, this is all we can do today, in our dark era: to render visible the failure of all attempts at redemption, the obscene travesty of every gesture of reconciling us with the violence we are forced to commit. Perhaps, Job is the proper hero today: the one who refuses to find any deeper meaning in the suffering he encounters.
2. The Terrorist Resentment
As to the "terrorist" fundamentalists' attacks, the first thing that strikes the eye is the inadequacy of the idea, developed most systematically by Donald Davidson, that human acts are rationally-intentional, accountable in the terms of beliefs and desires of the agent. This approach exemplifies the racist bias of the theories of "rationality": although their aim is to understand the Other from within, they end up attributing to the Other the most ridiculous beliefs (up to the infamous 400 virgins awaiting the believer in Paradise as the "rational" explanation of why he is ready to blow himself up), i.e., they makes the other ridiculously weird in the very effort of trying to make him "like us." Here is a passage from one of the propaganda texts distributed by North Korea during the Korean war:
"Hero Kang Ho-yung was seriously wounded in both arms and both legs in the Kamak Hill Battle, so he rolled into the midst of the enemy with a hand grenade in his mouth and wiped them out, shouting: 'My arms and legs were broken. But on the contrary my retaliatory spirit against you scoundrels became a thousand times stronger. I will show the unbending fighting will of a member of the Workers' Party of Korea and unflinching will firmly pledged to the Party and the Leader!'"
It is easy to laugh at the ridiculously non-realistic character of this description: how could the poor Kang talk if he was holding the grenade with his mouth? And how is it that, in the midst of a fierce battle, there was time for such a long declamatory proclamation? However, what if the mistake is to read this passage as a realistic description, thus imputing to Koreans ridiculous beliefs? In other words, what if the mistake is the same one as that of the anthropologists who impute to "primitive" aborigines celebrating the eagle as their ancestor the belief that they are really descended from the eagle? Why not read this passage - which effectively sounds operatic in its pathos - in the way similar to listening to Act III of Wagner's Tristan, where the mortally wounded Tristan is singing his (extremely demanding) dying chant for almost an hour - who of us is ready to impute to Wagner the belief that this is possible?
The fundamentalist Islamic terror is NOT grounded in the terrorists' conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of the global consumerist civilization: the problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that THEY THEMSELVES secretly consider themselves inferior (like, obviously, Hitler himself felt towards Jews) - which is why our condescending Politically Correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that they secretly already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. (This clearly goes for Dalai Lama who justifies the Tibetan Buddhism in WESTERN terms of the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain.) Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dosage of "true" "racist" conviction into one's own superiority.
The perplexing fact about the "terrorist" attacks is that they do not fit our standard opposition of Evil as egotism, as disregard for the common Good, and Good as the spirit of (and actual readiness for) the sacrifice for some higher Cause: terrorists cannot but appear as something akin to Milton's Satan with his "Evil, be thou my Good": while they pursue (what appears to us) evil goals with evil means, the very FORM of their activity meets the highest standard of the Good. The resolution of this enigma is easy, known already to Rousseau: egotism (the concern for one's well-being) is NOT opposed to common good, since altruistic norms can easily be deduced from egotist concerns. Individualism versus communitarianism, utilitarianism versus universal normativism, are FALSE oppositions, since the two opposed options amount to the same as to their result. The critics who complain how, in today's hedonistic-egotistic society, true values are lacking, totally miss the point: the true opposite of egotist self-love is not altruism, concern for common Good, but envy, resentment, which makes me act AGAINST my own interests. Freud already knew it: death-drive is opposed to pleasure principle as well as to reality principle, i.e., the true "Evil" (= death drive) involves self-sabotage, it makes us act AGAINST our own interests. (Dupuy is here wrong in his characterization of the Lacanian psychoanalysis as part of the ongoing "mechanization of the mind" - psychoanalysis, on the contrary, REINTRODUCES notions of Evil and responsibility into our ethical vocabulary; "death-drive" is the name for what DISTURBS the homeostatic mechanism of rational pleasure-seeking, the weird reversal where I sabotage my own interests. If THIS is the true evil, then not only of today's secular pragmatic ethical theories, but even the "mechanization of the mind" in cognitive sciences, are to be conceived not as in itself "evil," but as a defense against Evil.
The problem with human desire is that, as Lacan put it, it is always "desire of the Other" in both genitivus subjectivus and genitivus objectivus: desire for the Other, desire to be desired by the Other, and, especially, desire for what the Other desires - envy and resentment are thus a constitutive component of human desire, as already Saint Augustin knew it so well - recall the passage from his Confessions, often quoted by Lacan, the scene of a baby jealous for his brother sucking the mother's breast ("I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother.")
Based on this insight, Dupuy proposes a convincing critique of John Rawls theory of justice: in the Rawls' model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they are based on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits. What Rawls doesn't see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully "justified," and would thus be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice. Rawls thus proposes a terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties, thereby missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is given a choice by a good witch: she will either give him one cow, and to his neighbor two cows, or take from him one cow, and from his neighbor two cows - the peasant immediately chooses the second option. (In a more morbid version, the witch tells him: "I will do to you whatever you want, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbor twice!" The peasant, with a cunning smile, asks her: "Take one of my eyes!")
Friedrich Hayek knew that it is much easier to accept inequalities if one can claim that they result from an impersonal blind force, so the good thing about "irrationality" of the market success or failure in capitalism (recall the old motif of market as the modern version of the imponderable Fate) is that it allows me precisely to perceive my failure (or success) as "undeserved", contingent... The fact that capitalism is not "just" is thus a key feature that makes it palpable to the majority (I can accept much more easily my failure if I know that it is not due to my inferior qualities, but to chance).
What Nietzsche and Freud share is the idea that justice as equality is founded on envy - on the envy of the Other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it; the demand for justice is thus ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the Other should be curtailed, so that everyone's access to jouissance should be equal. The necessary outcome of this demand, of course, is asceticism: since it is not possible to impose equal jouissance, what one CAN impose is only the equally shared PROHIBITION. However, one should not forget that today, in our allegedly permissive society, this asceticism assumes precisely the form of its opposite, of the GENERALIZED superego injunction "Enjoy!". We are all under the spell of this injunction, with the outcome that our enjoyment is more hindered than ever - recall the yuppie who combines Narcissistic "Self-Fulfillment" with utter ascetic discipline of jogging, eating health food, etc. This, perhaps, is what Nietzsche had in mind with his notion of the Last Man - it is only today that we can really discern the contours of the Last Man, in the guise of the hedonistic asceticism of yuppies. Nietzsche thus does not simply urge life-assertion against asceticism: he is well aware how a certain asceticism is the obverse of the decadent excessive sensuality - therein resides his criticism of Wagner's Parsifal, and, more generally, of the late Romantic decadence oscillating between damp sensuality and obscure spiritualism.
So what IS envy? Recall again the Augustinian scene of a sibling envying his brother who is sucking the mother's breast: the subject does not envy the Other's possession of the prized object as such, but rather the way the Other is able to ENJOY this object - which is why it is not enough for him simply to steal and thus gain possession of the object: his true aim is to destroy the Other's ability/capacity to enjoy the object.� As such, envy is to be located into the triad of envy, thrift and melancholy, the three forms of not being able to enjoy the object (and, of course, reflexively enjoying this very impossibility). In contrast to the subject of envy, who envies the other's possession and/or jouissance of the object, the miser possesses the object, but cannot enjoy/consume it - his satisfaction derives from just possessing it, elevating it into a sacred, untouchable/prohibited, entity which should under no conditions be consumed (recall the proverbial figure of the lone miser who, upon returning home, safely locks the doors, opens up his chest and then takes the secret peek at his prized object, observing it in awe); this very hindrance that prevents the consummation of the object guarantees its status of the object of desire. The melancholic subject, like the miser, possesses the object, but loses the cause that made him desire it: this figure, most tragic of them all, has free access to all he wants, but finds no satisfaction in it.
This excess of envy is the base of Rousseau's well-known, but nonetheless not fully exploited, distinction between egotism, amour-de-soi (which natural), and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself to others in which I focus not on achieving the goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it:
"The primitive passions, which all directly tend towards our happiness, make us deal only with objects which relate to them, and whose principle is only amour de soi, are all in their essence lovable and tender; however, when, diverted from their objects by obstacles, they are more occupied with the obstacle they try to get rid of, than with the object they try to reach, they change their nature and become irascible and hateful. This is how amour de soi, which is a noble and absolute feeling, becomes amour-propre, that is to say, a relative feeling by means of which one compares oneself, a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others." (Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jacques, first dialogue)
For Rousseau, an evil person is NOT an egotist, "thinking only about his own interests": a true egotist is all too busy with taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortunes to others, while the primary vice of a bad person is precisely that he is more occupied with others than with himself. Rousseau describes here a precise libidinal mechanism: the inversion which generates the shift of the libidinal investment from the object to the obstacle itself. This is why egalitarianism itself should never be accepted at its face value: the notion (and practice) of egalitarian justice, insofar as it is sustained by envy, relies on the inversion of the standard renunciation accomplished to benefit others: "I am ready to renounce it, so that others will (also) NOT (be able to) have it!" Far from being opposed to the spirit of sacrifice, Evil is thus the very spirit of sacrifice, ready to ignore one's own well-being - if, through my sacrifice, I can deprive the Other of his jouissance... Is this sad fact that the opposition to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, or at least a meaningful utopian project, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament? Where is here the celebrated freedom of choice, when the only choice is the one between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence, a violence which is almost exclusively directed against one's own - the cars burned and the schools torched were not from rich neighborhoods, but were part of the hard-won acquisitions of the very strata from which protesters originate.
Which is why the notion of evaluation is crucial for the functioning of a democratic society: if, at the level of their symbolic identity, all subjects are equal, if, here, un sujet vaut l'autre, if they can be indefinitely substituted to each other, since each of them is reduced to an empty punctual place ($), to a "man without qualities-properties" (to recall the title of Robert Musil's magnum opus) - if, consequently, every reference to their properly symbolic mandate is prohibited, how then, are they to be distributed within the social edifice, how can their occupation be legitimized? The answer is, of course, evaluation: one has to evaluate - as objectively as possible, and through all possible means, from quantified testing of their abilities to more "personalized" in-depth interviews - their potentials. The underlying ideal notion is to produce their characterization deprived of all traces of symbolic identities. Here the standard Leftist critics who denounce the hidden cultural bias of evaluations and tests miss the point: the problem with evaluation, with its total objectivation of criteria, is not that it is unjust, but precisely that it IS just.
What this means is that the "deconstructionist" / "risk society" commonplace according to which the contemporary individual experiences himself as thoroughly denaturalized, that he experiences even his most "natural" features (from his ethnic identity to his sexual preferences) as something chosen, historically contingent, to be learned, is profoundly deceiving: what we are effectively witnessing today is the opposite process of an unheard-of re-naturalization: all big "public issues" are (re)translated into questions about the regulation and stances towards intimate "natural"/"personal" idiosyncrasies. This is also why, at a more general level, the pseudo-naturalized ethnico-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism: in our age of »post-politics,« when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (religious) or natural (ethnic) tensions. - And "evaluation" is precisely the regulation of social promotion that fits this massive renaturalization. So, perhaps, the time has come to reassert, as the truth of evaluation, the perverted logic to which Marx refers ironically in his description of commodity fetishism, when he quotes Dogberry's advice to Seacoal from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (Act 3, Scene 3) which concludes Chapter 1 of Das Capital: "To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by nature." Today, in our times of evaluation, to be a computer expert or a successful manager is a gift of nature, while to have a beautiful lips or eyes is a fact of culture...
3. Escape from New Orleans This same deadlock is clearly discernible also beneath the New Orleans outbursts. One of the pop heroes of the US-Iraq war, enjoying a short fame and today forgotten, was Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the unfortunate Iraqi information minister who, in his daily press conferences, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line - when the US tanks were only hundreds of yards from his office, he continued to claim that the US TV shots of the tanks on the Baghdad streets are just Hollywood special effects. Sometimes, however, he struck a strange truth - say, when, confronted with the claims that Americans are in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: "They are not in control of anything - they don't even control themselves!"
It is as if, with the New Orleans descent into chaos, Marx's old saying that tragedy repeats itself as comedy was turned around: Saeed's comic repartee turned into a tragedy. The US authorities, this universal policeman endeavoring to control the threats to peace, freedom and democracy all around the globe, lost control of a part of the metropolis itself: for a couple of days, the city regressed to a wild preserve of free looting, killing and rapes, it became the city of the dead and dying, a post-apocalyptic Zone in which what Giorgio Agamben called homini sacer - those excluded from the civil order - wander around. A lot can be said about this fear that permeates our lives, the fear that, because of some natural or technological accident (electricity failure, earthquake...), our entire social fabric will disintegrate - recall the Millenium Bug fear a couple of years ago. This feeling of the fragility of our social bond is in itself a social symptom: precisely where one would expect a surge of social solidarity in the face of a disaster, the most ruthless egotism explodes.
This is no time for any kind of Schadenfreude, of "the US got what it deserved" - the tragedy is immense, what we have is no ordinary flooding, since New Orleans is below the sea level, so that water will not just retreat by itself. But it is the time for analysis. Something happened that we've already seen - where? The scenes we saw on the TV news in the last days cannot but recall a whole series of real life, media and cultural phenomena. The first association, of course, is that of the TV reports from Third World cities descending into chaos during a civil war (Kabul, Baghdad, Somalia, Liberia...) - and this accounts for the true surprise of the New Orleans eclipse: what we were used to see happening THERE, it now took place HERE. (The irony is that Louisiana IS often designated as the "US banana republic," the Third World part of the US.) This is probably one of the reasons why the reaction of the authorities came too late: although one rationally knew what could have happened, one did not really believe that it can happen, as with the threat of ecological catastrophe - although we know all about it, we somehow do not really believe that it can happen...
However, it DID already happen in the US: in Hollywood, of course, the Escape from... series (Escape from New York, Escape from Los Angeles), in which a US megalopolis is cut off from the domain of public order and criminal gangs take over. More interesting in this respect is David Koepp's The Trigger Effect from 1996, in which, when the power goes out in the big city, society starts to break down; the film plays imaginatively with race relations, and our prejudicial attitudes toward strangers - as the publicity for the film put it: "When nothing works, anything goes." Even further behind is lurking the aura of New Orleans as the city of vampires, living dead and voodoo, where some dark spiritual force is always threatening to explode the social fabric. So, again, as with 9/11, the surprise was not just a surprise: what happened was not that the self-enclosed ivory tower of the US life was shattered by the intrusion of the Third World reality of social chaos, violence and hunger, but, on the contrary, that (what was hitherto perceived as) something which is not part of our reality, something that we were only aware of as a fictional presence on TV and theatre screens, brutally entered our reality.
So what WAS the catastrophy that took place in New Orleans? Upon a closer look, the first thing one can note is its strange temporality, a kind of delayed reaction. Immediately after the hurricane strike, there was a momentary relief: its eye missed New Orleans by about 25 miles, only 10 people were reported dead, so the worst, the feared catastrophe, was again avoided. Then, in the aftermath, things started to go really wrong: part of the protective walls broke down, the city was submerged into water, and social order disintegrated... The natural catastrophe (hurricane) thus revealed itself "socially mediated" in multiple ways. First, there are good reasons to suspect that the US is getting more hurricanes than usual due to man-made global warming. Second, the catastrophic immediate effect of the hurricane (the city under water) was to a large extent due to human failure: the protective dams were not good enough, and the authorities were not ready for the (easily predictable) humanitarian needs. But the true shock took place AFTERWARDS, in the guise of the social effect of the natural catastrophy, the disintegration of the social order - as if, in a kind of deferred action, natural catastrophy repeated itself as a social one. How are we to read this social breakdown?
The first reaction is the standard conservative one: the events in New Orleans confirm yet again how fragile social order is, how we need a severe law enforcement and ethical pressure to prevent the explosion of violent passions. Human nature is naturally evil, descent into social chaos is a permanent threat... This argument can also be given a racist twist: those who exploded into violence were almost exclusively black, so here we have a new proof of how blacks are not really civilized. Natural catastrophes bring to the light the scum which is barely kept under check in normal times.
Of course, the obvious answer to this line of argumentation is that the New Orleans descent into chaos rendered visible the persisting racial divide in the US: New Orleans was 68% black, they are the poor and the underprivileged, they had no means to leave the city in time and were left behind, starving and without care, so no wonder they exploded - their violent explosions should thus be seen as echoing the Rodney King riots in LA, or even the Detroit and Newark outbursts in the late 1960s.
More fundamentally, what if the tension that led to the explosion in New Orleans was not the tension between "human nature" and the force of civilization that keeps it in check, but the tension between the two aspects of our civilization itself? What if, in endeavoring to control explosions like the one in New Orleans, the forces of Law and Order were confronted with the "nature" of capitalism at its purest, the logic of individualist competition, of ruthless self-assertion, generated by the capitalist dynamics, a "nature" much more threatening and violent than all the hurricanes and earthquakes?
In his theory of the sublime (das Erhabene), Immanuel Kant interpreted our fascination by the outbursts of the power of nature as a negative proof of the superiority of spirit over nature: no matter how brutal the display of ferocious nature is, it cannot touch the moral law in ourselves. Does the catastrophy of New Orleans not provide a similar example of the sublime? No matter how brutal the vortex of the hurricane, it cannot disrupt the vortex of the capitalist dynamic...
4. The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape Revisited
There is, however, another aspect of the New Orleans outbursts that is no less crucial with regard to ideological mechanisms that regulate our lives. According to a well-known anthropological anecdote, the "primitives" to whom one attributed certain superstitious beliefs (that they descend from a fish or from a bird, for example), when directly asked about these beliefs, answered: "Of course not - we're not that stupid! But I was told that some of our ancestors effectively did believe that..." - in short, they transferred their belief onto another. Are we not doing the same with our children: we go through the ritual of Santa Claus, since our children (are supposed to) believe in it and we do not want to disappoint them; they pretend to believe not to disappoint us, our belief in their naivety (and to get the presents, of course), etc. Is this not also the usual excuse of the mythical crooked politician who turns honest? - "I cannot disappoint the ordinary people who believe in it (or in me)." And, furthermore, is this need to find another who "really believes," also not that which propels us in our need to stigmatize the Other as a (religious or ethnic) "fundamentalist"? In an uncanny way, some beliefs always seem to function "at a distance": in order for the belief to function, there has to be some ultimate guarantor of it, yet this guarantor is always deferred, displaced, never present in persona. The point, of course, is that this other subject who directly believes, needs not exist for the belief to be operative: it is enough precisely to presuppose his existence, i.e. to believe in it, either in the guise of the primitive other or in the guise of the impersonal "one" ("one believes...").
And is it not similar with our innermost feelings and attitudes, inclusive of crying and laughing? Suffice it to recall the old enigma of transposed emotions at work from the so-called "weepers" (women hired to cry at funerals) in "primitive" societies, to the "canned laughter" on a TV-screen (the reaction of laughter to a comic scene which is included into the soundtrack itself), and to adopting a screen persona in cyberspace. When I construct a "false" image of myself which stands for me in a virtual community in which I participate (in sexual games, for example, a shy man often assumes the screen persona of an attractive promiscuous woman), the emotions I feel and "feign" as part of my screen persona are not simply false: although (what I experience as) my "true self" does not feel them, they are nonetheless in a sense "true" - the same as with watching a TV mini-series with canned laughter where, even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard days work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show...
The events in New Orleans after the city was struck by the hurricane Katrina provide a new addition to this series of subjects supposed to...: THE SUBJECT SUPPOSED TO LOOT AND RAPE. We all remember the reports on the disintegration of public order, the explosion of black violence, rape and looting - however, later inquiries demonstrated that, in the large majority of cases, these alleged orgies of violence simply did not occur: non-verified rumors were reported as facts by the media. For example, on September 4, the Superintendent Compass of the New Orleans Police Department was quoted in New York Times about conditions at the convention centre: "The tourists are walking around there, and as soon as these individuals see them, they're being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets." In an interview two weeks later, he conceded that some of his most shocking statements turned out to be untrue: "We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault." (See Jim Dwyer and Christopher Drew, "Fear Exceeded Crime's Reality in New Orleans," New York Times, September 29 2005.)
The reality of poor Blacks, abandoned, left without means to survive, was thus transformed into the specter of the explosion of Black violence, of tourists robbed and killed on streets that had slid into anarchy, on the Superdome compounded by gangs that were raping women and children... These reports were not merely words, they were words which had precise material effects: they generated fears that led the authorities to change troop deployments, they delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters... For example, Acadian Ambulance Company's cars were locked down after word came that a firehouse in Covington had been looted by armed robbers of all its water - a report that proved totally untrue.
Of course, the sense of menace had been ignited by genuine disorder and violence: looting did begin at the moment the storm passed over New Orleans, ranging from base thievery to foraging for the necessities of life. However, the (limited) reality of crimes in no way condones "reports" on the total breakdown of law and order - not because these reports were "exaggerated," but for a much more radical reason. Jacques Lacan claimed that, even if the patient's wife is really sleeping around with other men, the patient's jealousy is still to be treated as a pathological condition; in a homologous way, even if rich Jews in the Germany of the early 1930s "really" exploited German workers, seduced their daughters, dominated the popular press, etc., the Nazi anti-Semitism was still an emphatically "untrue," a pathological ideological condition - why? What made it pathological was the disavowed libidinal investment into the figure of the Jew: the cause of all social antagonisms was projected into the "Jew," the object of perverted love-hatred, the spectral figure of mixed fascination and disgust. And exactly the same goes for the looting in New Orleans: even if ALL reports on violence and rapes were to be proven factually true, the stories circulating about them would still be "pathological" and racist, since what motivated these stories were not facts, but racist prejudices, the satisfaction felt by those who would be able to say: "You see, Blacks are really like than, violent barbarians under the thin layer of civilization!" In other words, we would be dealing by what one can call lying in the guise of truth: even if what I am saying is factually true, the motives that make me say it are false.
Of course, we do not openly admit these motifs - from time to time, they nonetheless pop up in our public space in the censored form, in the guise of denegation, evoked as an option and then immediately discarded. Recall what William Bennett, the neo-con compulsive gambler author of The Book of Virtues, said on Sept 28 2005 on his call-in program "Morning in America": "But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down." The White House spokesman immediately reacted: "The president believes the comments were not appropriate." Two days later, Bennett qualified his statement: "I was putting a hypothetical proposition ... and then said about it, it was morally reprehensible to recommend abortion of an entire group of people. But this is what happens when you argue that ends can justify the means." THIS is what Freud meant when he wrote that the Unconscious knows no negation: the official (Christian, democratic...) discourse is accompanied and sustained by a whole nest of obscene brutal racist, sexist, etc., fantasies, which can only be admitted in a censored form.
But we are not dealing here only with the good old racism - something more is at stake: a fundamental feature of the emerging "global" society. On September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers were hit. Twelve years earlier, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. November 9 announced the "happy '90s," the Francis Fukuyama dream of the "end of history," the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, that the search is over, that the advent of a global, liberal world community lurks just around the corner, that the obstacles to this ultra-Hollywood happy ending are merely empirical and contingent (local pockets of resistance where the leaders did not yet grasp that their time is over). In contrast to it, 9/11 is the main symbol of the end of the Clintonite happy '90s, of the forthcoming era in which new walls are emerging everywhere, between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, on the U.S.-Mexico border. The rise of the populist New Right is just the most prominent example of the urge to raise new walls.
A couple of years ago, an ominous decision of the European Union passed almost unnoticed: the plan to establish an all-European border police force to secure the isolation of the Union territory and thus to prevent the influx of the immigrants. THIS is the truth of globalization: the construction of NEW walls safeguarding the prosperous Europe from the immigrant flood. One is tempted to resuscitate here the old Marxist »humanist« opposition of »relations between things« and »relations between persons«: in the much celebrated free circulation opened up by the global capitalism, it is "things" (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of "persons" is more and more controlled. We are thus not dealing with "globalization as an unfinished project," but with a true "dialectics of globalization": the segregation of the people IS the reality of economic globalization. This new racism of the of the developed is in a way much more brutal than the previous one's: its implicit legitimization is neither naturalist (the »natural« superiority of the developed West) nor any longer culturalist (we in the West also want to preserve our cultural identity), but the unabashed economic egotism - the fundamental divide is the one between those included into the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it.
When, at the beginning of October 2005, the Spanish police dealt with the problem of how to stop the influx of desperate African immigrants who tried to penetrate the small Spanish territory across Gibraltar, they displayed the plans to build a wall there between Spanish and Morocco border. The images presented - a complex structure with all the electronic equipment - resembled uncannily those of the Berlin Wall, only in the opposite direction, destined to prevent people from coming in, not getting out.
The cruel irony of the situation is that it was the government of Zapatero, at this moment arguably the most anti-racist and tolerant in Europe, that is forced to adopt these measures of segregation - a clear sign of the limit of the multiculturalist "tolerant" approach which preaches open borders and acceptance of Others. If one were to open the borders, the first to rebel would be local working classes. It is thus becoming clear that the solution is not "tear down the walls and let them all in," this easy empty demand of soft-hearted liberal "radicals." The only true solution is to tear down the TRUE Wall, not the police one, but the social-economic one: to change society so that people will no longer desperately try to escape their own world.
This brings us back to rumours and "reports" about "subjects supposed to loot and rape": New Orleans is the city within the US which is among the most heavily marked by the internal Wall that separates the afffluent from the ghettoized Blacks. And it is about those on the other side of the Wall that we fantasize: they more and more live in another world, in a blank zone that offers itself as a screen for the projection of our fears, anxieties, and secret desires. The "subject supposed to loot and rape" is on the other side of the Wall - it is about this subject that Bennett can afford to make his slip of tongue and confess in a censored mode his murderous dreams. More than anything else, rumors and fake reports from the aftermath of Katrina bear witness to the deep class division of American society.
5. C'est mon choix... to Burn Cars
The recent outbursts in Paris bear witness to the same Wall in Europe itself. The thing to resist, when we are faced with shocking reports and images of cars burning in Paris suburbs, is the "hermeneutic temptation": the search for some deeper meaning or message hidden in these outbursts. What is most difficult to accept is precisely their utmost meaninglessness: more than a form of protest, they are a passage à l'acte which bears witness not only to the impotence of the perpetrators, but, even more, to the lack of what Fredric Jameson called "cognitive mapping", to their inability to locate the experience of their situation into a meaningful Whole. The true question is thus: which are the roots of this disorientation?
Social theorists like to repeat that today's society is thoroughly "reflexive": there is no Nature or Tradition that would provide the firm foundation on which one can rely, even our innermost impetuses (sexual orientation) are more and more experienced as something to be chosen. How to feed and educate a child, how to proceed in sexual seduction, how and what to eat, how to relax and amuse oneself, all these spheres are more and more "colonized" by reflexivity, experienced as something to be learned and decided upon. However, the ultimate deadlock of the risk society resides in the gap between knowledge and decision: there is no one who "really knows" what to do, the situation is radically "undecidable", but we nonetheless HAVE TO DECIDE. The problem is thus not that of the forced choice (I am free to choose - on condition that I make the right choice), but the opposite one: the choice is effectively free and, for this very reason, is experienced as utterly more frustrating.
We find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fatefully affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge. Far from being experienced as liberating, this compulsion freely to decide is thus experienced as an anxiety-provoking obscene gamble, a kind of ironic reversal of Predestination: I am held accountable for decisions which I was forced to make without proper knowledge of the situation. The freedom of decision enjoyed by the subject of the "risk society" is not the freedom of someone who can freely choose his destiny, but the anxiety-provoking freedom of somebody who is constantly compelled to make decisions without being aware of their consequences. There is no guarantee that the democratic politicization of crucial decisions, the active involvement of thousands of concerned individuals, will necessarily improve the quality and accuracy of decisions and thus effectively lessen the risks - one is tempted to evoke here the answer of a devote Catholic to the reproach of the atheist liberal that they, Catholics, are so stupid as to believe in the infallibility of the Pope: "We, Catholics, at least believe in the infallibility of ONE and only one person; does democracy not rely on a much more risky notion that the majority of the people, i.e. millions of them, are infallible?"
The subject thus finds himself in a Kafkaesque situation of being guilty for not even knowing what (if anything) he is guilty of: the prospect forever haunts me that I have already made decisions which will endanger me and all my beloved, but I will only, if ever, learn the truth about it when it will be already too late. Let us recall here the figure of Forrest Gump, this perfect "vanishing mediator," the very opposite of the Master (the one who symbolically registers an event by nominating it, by inscribing it into the big Other): Gump is presented as the innocent bystander who, by just doing what he does, unknowingly sets in motion a shift of historical proportions. When he visits Berlin to play football and inadvertently throws the ball across the wall, he thereby starts the process which brings down the wall; when he visits Washington and is given a room in the Watergate complex, in the middle of the night he notices some strange things going on in the rooms across the yard, calls the guard and sets in motion the events which culminated in Nixon's downfall - is this not the ultimate metaphor for the situation at which the proponents of the notion of "risk society" aim, a situation in which we are forced to make moves whose ultimate effects are beyond our reach?
We are here at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the very insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms. You have to change job every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment? Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or "second modernity" ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the "escape from freedom," of the immature sticking to old stable forms... Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, then I as if were automatically interpret all these changes as the results of my personality, not as the result of me being thrown around by the market forces.
The most popular TV show of the Fall of 2000 in France, with the viewer rating two times higher than that of the notorious "Big Brother" reality soaps, was "C'est mon choix" ("It is my choice") on France 3, the talk-show whose guest is each time an ordinary (or, exceptionally, well-known) person who made a peculiar choice which determined his or her entire life-style: one of them decided never to wear underwear, another tries all the time to find a more appropriate sexual partner for his father and mother - extravagance is allowed, solicited even, but with the explicit exclusion of the choices which may disturb the public (say, a person whose choice is to be and act as a racist, is a priori excluded). Can one imagine a better predicament of what the "freedom of choice" effectively amounts to in our liberal societies? We can go on making our small choices, "reinventing ourselves" thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance. With regard to the "C'est mon choix," the truly radical thing would have been to focus precisely on the "disturbing" choices: to invite as guests people like dedicated racists, i.e. people whose choice (whose difference) DOES make a difference. This, also, is the reason why, today, "democracy" is more and more a false issue, a notion so discredited by its predominant use that, perhaps, one should take the risk of abandoning it to the enemy. Where, how, by whom are the key decisions concerning global social issues made? Are they made in the public space, through the engaged participation of the majority? If the answer is yes, it is of secondary importance if the state has a one-party system, etc. If the answer is no, it is of secondary importance if we have parliamentary democracy and freedom of individual choices.
6. Class Struggles in France, Again
Etienne Balibar proposed the notion of excessive, non-functional cruelty as a feature of contemporary life: a cruelty whose figures range from "fundamentalist" racist and/or religious slaughter to the "senseless" outbursts of violence performed by adolescents and the homeless in our megalopolises, a violence one is tempted to call "Id-Evil" (referring to the Freudian Id (das Es, le Ça), a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological reasons. All the talk about foreigners stealing work from us or about the threat they represent to our Western values should not deceive us: under closer examination, it soon becomes clear that this talk provides a rather superficial secondary rationalization. The answer we ultimately obtain from a skinhead is that it makes him feel good to beat foreigners, that their presence disturbs him. What we encounter here is indeed Id-Evil, the Evil structured and motivated by the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between the Ego and jouissance, by the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance in the very heart of it. Id-Evil thus stages the most elementary "short-circuit" in the relationship of the subject to the primordially missing object-cause of his desire: what "bothers" us in the "other" (Jew, Japanese, African, Turk) is that he appears to entertain a privileged relationship to the object - the other either possesses the object-treasure, having snatched it away from us (which is why we don't have it), or he poses a threat to our possession of the object.
What one should propose here, again, is the Hegelian 'infinite judgement' asserting the speculative identity of these "useless" and "excessive" outbursts of violence, which display nothing but a pure and naked ("non-sublimated") hatred of the Otherness, with the post-political multiculturalist universe of tolerance for difference in which nobody is excluded. Of course, we just used the term "non-sublimated" in its common meaning which, in this case, stands for the exact opposite of its strict psychoanalytic meaning - in short, what takes place in the focusing of our hatred on some representative of the (officially tolerated) Other is the very mechanism of sublimation at its most elementary: the all-encompassing nature of the post-political Concrete Universality which accounts for everybody at the level of symbolic inclusion, this multiculturalist vision-and-practice of "unity in difference" ("all equal, all different"), leaves open, as the only way to mark the Difference, the proto-sublimatory gesture of elevating a contingent Other (of race, sex, religion...) into the "absolute Otherness" of the impossible Thing, the ultimate threat to our identity - this Thing which must be annihilated if we are to survive. Therein resides the properly Hegelian paradox: the final arrival of the truly rational "concrete universality" - the abolition of antagonisms, the "mature" universe of negotiated co-existence of different groups - coincides with its radical opposite, with thoroughly contingent outbursts of violence.
Hegel's fundamental rule is that "objective" excess (the direct reign of abstract universality which imposes its law "mechanically", with utter disregard for the concerned subject caught in its web) is always supplemented by the "subjective" excess (the irregular, arbitrary exercise of whims). An exemplary case of this interdependence is provided by Balibar, who distinguishes two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence: the "ultra-objective" ("structural") violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the "automatic" creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the "ultra-subjective" violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) "fundamentalisms." This "excessive" and "groundless" violence involves its own mode of knowledge, that of impotent cynical reflection - back to our example of Id-Evil, of a skinhead beating up foreigners: when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, and if capable of minimal theoretical reflection, he will suddenly start to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood... in short, he will provide a more or less precise psycho-sociological account of his acts so dear to enlightened liberals eager to "understand" the violent youth as a tragic victim of their social and familial conditions. The standard enlightened formula of the efficiency of the "critique of ideology" from Plato onwards ("they are doing it, because they do not know what they are doing," i.e. knowledge is in itself liberating, when the erring subject reflects upon what he is doing, he will no longer be doing it) is here turned around: the violent skinhead "knows very well what he is doing, but he is nonetheless doing it." The symbolically efficient knowledge embedded in the subject's effective social praxis disintegrates into, on the one hand, excessive "irrational" violence with no ideologico-political foundation and, on the other hand, impotent external reflection that leaves the subject's acts intact. In the guise of this cynicallly-impotent reflecting skinhead who, with an ironic smile, explains to the perplexed journalist the roots of his senselessly violent behavior, the enlightened tolerant multiculturalist bent on "understanding" forms of excessive violence gets his own message in its inverted, true form - in short, as Lacan would have put it, at this point, the communication between him and the "object" of his study, the intolerant skinhead, is thoroughly successful.
What have these outbursts to do with the fact we live in a "risk society" of permanent choices? Everything: these "useless" and "excessive" outbursts of violence, which display nothing but a pure and naked ("non-sublimated") hatred of the Otherness, are the obverse of the "reflexivization" of our daily lives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fate of psychoanalytic interpretation. Today, the formations of the Unconscious (from dreams to hysterical symptoms) have definitely lost their innocence and are thoroughly reflexivized: the "free associations" of a typical educated analysand consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of their disturbances, so that one is quite justified in saying that we have not only Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian... interpretations of the symptoms, but symptoms themselves which are Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian..., i.e. whose reality involves implicit reference to some psychoanalytic theory. The unfortunate result of this global reflexivization of the interpretation (everything becomes interpretation, the Unconscious interprets itself) is that the analyst's interpretation itself loses its performative "symbolic efficiency" and leaves the symptom intact in the immediacy of its idiotic jouissance.
What happens in psychoanalytic treatment is strictly homologous to the response of neo-Nazi skinhead who, when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, suddenly starts to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood - the unity of practice and its inherent ideological legitimization disintegrates into raw violence and its impotent, inefficient interpretation. The reemergence of the brute Real of "irrational" violence, impermeable and insensitive to reflexive interpretation, is the necessary obverse of the universalized reflexivity hailed by the risk-society-theorists. So the more today's social theory proclaims the end of Nature and/or Tradition and the rise of the "risk society," the more the implicit reference to "nature" pervades our daily discourse: even when we do not speak of the "end of history," do we not put forward the same message when we claim that we are entering a "post-ideological" pragmatic era, which is another way of claiming that we are entering a post-political order in which the only legitimate conflicts are ethnic/cultural conflicts?
Typically, in today's critical and political discourse, the term "worker" disappeared from the vocabulary, substituted and/or obliterated by "immigrants /immigrant workers: Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Mexicans in the USA/" - in this way, the class problematic of workers' exploitation is transformed into the multiculturalist problematic of the "intolerance of the Otherness," etc., and the excessive investment of the multiculturalist liberals in protecting immigrants's ethnic rights clearly draws its energy from the "repressed" class dimension. Although Francis Fukuyama's thesis on the "end of history" quickly fell into disrepute, we still silently presume that the liberal-democratic capitalist global order is somehow the finally-found "natural" social regime, we still implicitly conceive conflicts in the Third World countries as a subspecies of natural catastrophes, as outbursts of quasi-natural violent passions, or as conflicts based on the fanatic identification to one's ethnic roots - and what is "the ethnic" here if not again a codeword for nature?
There is a well-known anecdote about Picasso during the World War II: a German officer visited his studio, saw there Guernica and, shocked at the modernist confusion of the painting, asked him: "Did you do this?" Picasso calmly replied: "No, YOU did this!" Today, many liberals, when faced with violent outbursts like the looting in Paris suburbs, ask us, the few remaining Leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: "Did YOU not do it? Is THIS what you want?" And we should reply like Picasso: "No, YOU did this! This is the true result of YOUR politics!"
- 1. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Avions-nous oublié le ma? Penser la politique après le 11 septembre, Paris: Bayard 2002.
- 2. Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980.
- 3. Quoted in Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, New York: Thomas Dunne Books 2004, p. 85.
- 4. Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, New York: Basic Books 1984.
- 5. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1971 (revised edition 1999).
- 6. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994.
- 7. Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, Voulez-vous être évalué?, Paris: Grasset 2004.
- Etienne Balibar, "La violence: idealité et cruauté," in La crainte des masses, Paris: Editions Galilée, 1997.