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Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Essay)

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[[Alain ]] [[Badiou ]] [[identified ]] as the key feature of the XXth century the "[[passion ]] of the [[Real ]] /la passion du reel/"1: in contrast to the XIXth century of the [[utopian ]] or "[[scientific]]" projects and ideals, plans [[about ]] the [[future]], the XXth century aimed at delivering the [[thing ]] itself, at directly realizing the longer-for New [[Order]]. The ultimate and defining [[experience ]] of the XXth century was the direct experience of [[the Real ]] as opposed to the everyday [[social ]] [[reality ]] — the Real in its extreme [[violence ]] as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceiving layers of reality. Already in the trenches of the [[World ]] War I, Carl [[Schmitt ]] was celebrating the face to face combat as the authentic [[intersubjective ]] [[encounter]]: authenticity resides in the act of violent [[transgression]], from the [[Lacanian ]] Real — the Thing [[Antigone ]] confronts when he violates the order of the City — to the Bataillean [[excess]].
As Badiou demonstrated apropos of the Stalinist show trials, this violent effort to distill the pure Real from the elusive reality necessarily ends up in its opposite, in the [[obsession ]] with pure [[appearance]]: in the Stalinist [[universe]], the passion of the Real (ruthless enforcement of the Socialist [[development]]) thus culminates in ritualistic stagings of a theatrical [[spectacle ]] in the [[truth ]] of which no one believes. The key to this [[reversal ]] resides in the ultimate [[impossibility ]] to draw a clear [[distinction ]] between deceptive reality and some firm positive kernel of the Real: every positive bit of reality is a priori suspicious, since (as we [[know ]] from [[Lacan]]) the Real Thing is ultimately [[another ]] [[name ]] for the [[Void]]. The pursuit of the Real thus equals [[total ]] annihilation, a ([[self]])destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the [[semblance ]] and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle. The fundamental [[illusion ]] is here that, once the violent [[work ]] of purification is done, the New Man will emerge ex nihilo, freed from the filth of the [[past ]] corruption. Within this horizon, "really-existing men" are reduced to the stock of raw [[material ]] which can be ruthlessly exploited for the [[construction ]] of the new — the Stalinist revolutionary definition of man is a circular one: "man is what is to be crushed, stamped on, mercilessly worked over, in order to produce a new man." We have here the tension between the series of "ordinary" elements ("ordinary" men as the "material" of [[history]]) and the exceptional "empty" element (the socialist "New Man," which is at first [[nothing ]] but an empty [[place ]] to be filled up with positive [[content ]] through the revolutionary turmoil). In a [[revolution]], there is no a priori positive determination of this New Man: a revolution is not legitimized by the positive [[notion ]] of what Man's [[essence]], "[[alienated]]" in [[present ]] [[conditions ]] and to be realized through the revolutionary [[process]], is — the only legitimization of a revolution is [[negative]], a will to break with the Past. One should formulate here things in a very precise way: the [[reason ]] why the Stalinist fury of purification is so destructive resides in the very fact that it is sustained by the [[belief ]] that, after the destructive work of purification will be accomplished, SOMETHING WILL REMAIN, the [[sublime ]] "indivisible [[remainder]]," the paragon of the New. It is in order to conceal the fact that there is nothing beyond that, in a strictly [[perverse ]] way, the revolutionary has to cling to violence as the only [[index ]] of his authenticity, and it is as this level that the critics of [[Stalinism ]] as a rule misperceive the [[cause ]] of the [[Communist]]'s attachment to the Party. Say, when, in 1939-1941 pro-Soviet Communists twice had to [[change ]] their Party line overnight (after the Soviet-[[German ]] pact, it was [[imperialism]], not, [[Fascism]], which was elevated to the [[role ]] of the main [[enemy]]; from June 22 1941, when [[Germany ]] attacked [[Soviet Union]], it was again the popular front against the Fascist beast), the brutality of the imposed changes of [[position ]] was what attracted [[them]]. Along the same lines, the purges themselves exerted an [[uncanny ]] [[fascination]], especially on intellectuals: their "[[irrational]]" [[cruelty ]] served as a kind of [[ontological ]] proof, bearing [[witness ]] to the fact that we are dealing with the Real, not just with empty plans — the Party is ruthlessly brutal, so it means business…
So, if the passion of the Real ends up with the pure semblance of the [[political ]] theater, then, in an exact [[inversion]], the "[[postmodern]]" passion of the semblance of the Last Men ends up in a kind of Real. [[Recall ]] the phenomenon of "cutters" (mostly [[women ]] who experience an irresistible urge to cut themselves with razors or otherwise hurt themselves), strictly correlative to the virtualization of our environs: it stands for a desperate strategy to [[return ]] to the real of the [[body]]. As such, cutting is to be contrasted with the standard tattoo inscriptions on the body, which [[guarantee ]] the [[subject]]'s inclusion in the ([[virtual]]) [[symbolic ]] order — with the cutters, the problem is the opposite one, namely the assertion of reality itself. Far from [[being ]] suicidal, far from signalling a [[desire ]] for self-annihilation, cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a stronghold in reality, or (another aspect of the same phenomenon) to firmly ground our ego in our [[bodily ]] reality, against the unbearable [[anxiety ]] of perceiving oneself as non-existing. The standard report of cutters is that, after [[seeing ]] the red warm blood flowing out of the self-inflicted wound, the feel alive again, firmly rooted in reality. So, although, of course, cutting is a pathological phenomenon, it is nonetheless a pathological attempt at regaining some kind of normalcy, at avoiding a total [[psychotic ]] breakdown. On today's [[market]], we find a [[whole ]] series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real — in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. However, at the end of this process of virtualization, the inevitable Benthamian conclusion awaits us: reality is its own best semblance.
And was the bombing of the WTC with [[regard ]] to the Hollywood catastrophe movies not like the snuff pornography versus ordinary sado-maso porno movies? This is the element of truth in Karl-Heinz Stockhausen's provocative [[statement ]] that the planes hitting the WTC towers was the ultimate work of art: one can effectively perceive the collapse of the WTC towers as the climactic conclusion of the XXth century art's "passion of the real" — the "terrorists" themselves did it not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but FOR THE SPECTACULAR EFFECT OF IT. The authentic XXth century passion to penetrate the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitute our reality thus culminates in the thrill of the Real as the ultimate "effect," sought after from digitalized special effects through [[reality TV ]] and amateur pornography up to snuff movies. Snuff movies which deliver the "real thing" are perhaps the ultimate truth of virtual reality. There is an intimate connection between virtualization of reality and the emergence of an infinite and infinitized bodily [[pain]], much stronger that the usual one: do [[biogenetics ]] and Virtual Reality combined not open up new "enhanced" possibilities of TORTURE, new and unheard-of horizons of extending our ability to endure pain (through widening our sensory capacity to sustain pain, through inventing new forms of inflicting it)? Perhaps, the ultimate Sadean [[image ]] on an "undead" [[victim ]] of the [[torture ]] who can sustain endless pain without having at his/her disposal the escape into [[death]], also waits to become reality.
The ultimate American [[paranoiac ]] [[fantasy ]] is that of an [[individual ]] [[living ]] in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all [[people ]] around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show. The most [[recent ]] example of this is Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a 24-hours permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him permanently. Among its predecessors, it is worth mentioning [[Philip Dick]]'s [[Time ]] Out of Joint (1959), in which a hero living a modest daily [[life ]] in a small idyllic Californian city of the late 50s, gradually discovers that the whole town is a fake staged to keep him satisfied… The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late [[capitalist ]] consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way IRREAL, substanceless, deprived of the material inertia. And the same "derealization" of the [[horror ]] went on after the WTC bombings: while the [[number ]] of 6000 victims is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see — no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of the dying people… in clear contrast to the reporting from the [[Third ]] World catastrophies where the whole point was to produce a scoop of some gruesome detail: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women, men with throats cut. These shots were always accompanied with the advance-warning that "some of the [[images ]] you will see are extremely graphic and may hurt [[children]]" — a warning which we NEVER heard in the reports on the WTC collapse. Is this not yet another proof of how, even in this [[tragic ]] moments, the distance which separates Us from Them, from their reality, is maintained: the real horror happens THERE, not HERE? /"2
So it is not only that Hollywood [[stages ]] a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality — in the late capitalist consumerist [[society]], "real social life" itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in "real" life as [[stage ]] actors and extras… Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the "real life" itself, its reversal into a [[spectral ]] show. Among [[others]], Christopher Isherwood gave expression to this unreality of the American daily life, exemplified in the motel room: "American motels are unreal! /…/ they are deliberately designed to be unreal. /…/ The Europeans [[hate ]] us because we've retired to live [[inside ]] our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate." Peter Sloterdijk's notion of the "sphere" is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates the entire city. Years ago, a series of [[science]]-[[fiction ]] [[films ]] like Zardoz or Logan's Run forecasted today's postmodern predicament by extending this fantasy to the [[community ]] itself: the isolated group living an aseptic life in a secluded area longs for the experience of the real world of material decay. Is the endlessly repeated shot of the plane approaching and hitting the second WTC tower not the real-life version of the famous [[scene ]] from [[Hitchcock]]'s Birds, superbly [[analyzed ]] by [[Raymond Bellour]], in which Melanie approaches the Bodega Bay pier after crossing the bay on the small boat? When, while approaching the wharf, she waves to her (future) lover, a single bird (first perceived as an undistinguished dark [[blot]]) unexpectedly enters the [[frame ]] from above [[right ]] and hits her head.3 Was the plane which hit the WTC tower not literally the ultimate Hitchcockian blot, the anamorphic [[stain ]] which denaturalized the idyllic well-known New York landscape?
The Wachowski brothers' hit [[Matrix ]] (1999) brought this [[logic ]] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the "real reality," he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins — what remained of Chicago after a [[global ]] war. The [[resistance ]] [[leader ]] Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real." Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on [[September 11]]? Its citizens were introduced to the "desert of the real" — to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions.
When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable [[Impossible ]] happened, one should recall the [[other ]] defining catastrophe from the beginning of the XXth century, that of Titanic: it was also a shock, but the [[space ]] for it was already prepared in [[ideological ]] fantasizing, since Titanic was the [[symbol ]] of the might of the XIXth century industrial [[civilization]]. Does the same not hold also for these bombings? Not only were the [[media ]] bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist [[threat]]; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested — just recall the series of movies from Escape From New York to Independence Day. Therein resides the rationale of the often-mentioned [[association ]] of the attacks with the Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the [[object ]] of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.
One should therefore turn around the standard [[reading ]] according to which, the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our [[illusory ]] Sphere: quite on the contrary, it is prior to the WTC collapse than we lived in our reality, perceiving the Third World horrors as something which is not effectively part of our [[social reality]], as something which [[exists ]] (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) [[screen ]] — and what happened on September 11 is that this screen [[fantasmatic ]] apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e., [[the symbolic ]] coordinates which determine what we experience as reality). The fact that, after September 11, the opening of many "of the blockbuster" movies with scenes which bear a resemblance to the WTC collapse (large buildings on fire or under attack, terrorist actions…) was postponed (or the films were even shelved), is thus to be read as the "[[repression]]" of the fantasmatic background [[responsible ]] for the impact of the WTC collapse. Of course, the point is not to play a pseudo-postmodern [[game ]] of reducing the WTC collapse to just another media spectacle, reading it as a catastrophy version of the snuff porno movies; the question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: WHERE DID WE ALREADY SEE THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN?
It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw Real of a catastrophe, that we should bear in [[mind ]] the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates which determine its [[perception]]. If there is any [[symbolism ]] in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the "center of financial [[capitalism]]," but, rather, the notion that the two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations [[disconnected ]] from the sphere of material production. The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for only against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World "[[desert of the Real]]." It is the [[awareness ]] that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous [[agent ]] is threatening us all the time with total [[destruction]].
Is, consequently, Osama Bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the bombings, not the real-life [[counterpart ]] of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the [[master]]-criminal in most of the [[James ]] Bond films, involved in the [[acts ]] of global destruction. What one should recall here is that the only place in Hollywood films where we see the production process in all its intensity is when James Bond penetrates the master-criminal's [[secret ]] [[domain ]] and locates there the site of intense labor (distilling and packaging the drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York…). When the master-criminal, after capturing Bond, usually takes him on a tour of his illegal factory, is this not the closest Hollywood comes to the socialist-realist proud presentation of the production in a factory? And the function of Bond's [[intervention]], of course, is to explode in firecraks this site of production, allowing us to return to the daily semblance of our [[existence ]] in a world with the "disappearing [[working ]] [[class]]." Is it not that, in the exploding WTC towers, this violence directed at the threatening [[Outside ]] turned back at us?
The safe Sphere in which Americans live is experienced as under threat from the Outside of terrorist attackers who are ruthlessly self-sacrificing AND cowards, cunningly intelligent AND [[primitive ]] barbarians. The letters of the deceased attackers are quoted as "chilling documents" — why? Are they not exactly what one would expect from dedicated fighters on a suicidal mission? If one takes away references to Koran, in what do they differ from, say, the CIA special manuals? Were the CIA manuals for the Nicaraguan contras with detailed descriptions on how to perturb the daily life, up to how to clog the water toilets, not of the same order — if anything, MORE cowardly? When, on September 25, 2001, the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar appealed to Americans to use their own judgement in responding to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rather than blindly following their [[government]]'s policy to attack his country ("You accept everything your government says, whether it is [[true ]] or [[false]]. /…/ Don't you have your own [[thinking]]? /…/ So it will be better for you to use your [[sense ]] and [[understanding]]."), were these statements, taken in a literal-abstract, decontextualized, sense, not quite appropriate? Today, more than ever, one should bear in mind that the large majority of Arabs are not fanaticized dark crowds, but scared, uncertain, aware of their fragile status — witness the anxiety the bombings caused in Egypt.
Whenever we encounter such a purely [[evil ]] Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the [[Hegelian ]] lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence. For the last five centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the "[[civilized]]" West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the "barbarian" Outside: the long story from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo. Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic than real: in Africa, EVERY SINGLE DAY more people die of AIDS than all the victims of the WTC collapse, and their death could have been easily cut back with relatively small financial means. The US just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Ruanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one adds to the [[situation ]] in New York rapist gangs and a dozen or so snipers blindly targeting people who walk along the streets, one gets an [[idea ]] about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.
When, days after September 11 2001, our [[gaze ]] was transfixed by the images of the plane hitting one of the WTC towers, all of us were [[forced ]] to experience what the "[[compulsion ]] to [[repeat]]" ans [[jouissance ]] beyond the [[pleasure ]] [[principle ]] are: we wanted to see it again and again, the same shots were repeated ad nauseam, and the uncanny [[satisfaction ]] we got from it was jouissance at its purest. It is when we watched on TV screen the two WTC towers collapsing, that it became possible to experience the [[falsity ]] of the "reality TV shows": even if these shows are "for real," people still act in them — they simply play themselves. The standard disclaimer in a novel ("characters in this [[text ]] are a fiction, every resemblance with the real life characters is purely [[contingent]]") holds also for the participants of the reality soaps: what we see there are fictional characters, even if they play themselves for the real. Of course, the "return to the Real" can be given different twists: one already hears some conservatives [[claim ]] that what made us so vulnerable is our very [[openness ]] — with the inevitable conclusion lurking in the background that, if we are to protect our "way of life," we will have to sacrifice some of our freedoms which were "misused" by the enemies of [[freedom]]. This logic should be rejected tout court: is it not a fact that our First World "open" countries are the most controlled countries in the entire history of humanity? In the United Kingdom, all [[public ]] spaces, from buses to shopping malls, are constantly videotaped, not to mention the almost total [[control ]] of all forms of digital [[communication]].
Along the same lines, Rightist commentators like George Will also immediately proclaimed the end of the American "holiday from history" — the impact of reality shattering the isolated tower of the [[liberal ]] tolerant attitude and the [[Cultural ]] Studies focus on textuality. Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world… However, WHOM to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target, bringing us [[full ]] satisfaction. The ridicule of America attacking Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the greatest [[power ]] in the world will destroy one of the poorest countries in which peasant barely survive on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate [[case ]] of the impotent [[acting out]]? Afghanistan is otherwise an [[ideal ]] target: a country ALREADY reduced to rubble, with no infrastructure, repeatedly destroyed by war for the last two decades… one cannot avoid the surmise that the [[choice ]] of Afghanistan will be also determined by [[economic ]] considerations: is it not the best procedure to act out one's anger at a country for which no one cares and where there is nothing to destroy? Unfortunately, the possible choice of Afghanistan recalls the anecdote about the madman who searches for the lost key beneath a street light; when asked why there when he lost the key in a dark corner backwards, he answers: "But it is easier to [[search ]] under strong light!" Is not the ultimate irony that the whole of Kabul already looks like downtown Manhattan?
To succumb to the urge to act now and retaliate means precisely to avoid confronting the true dimensions of what occurred on September 11 — it means an act whose true aim is to lull us into the secure conviction that nothing has REALLY changed. The true long-term threat are further acts of mass [[terror ]] in comparison to which the [[memory ]] of the WTC collapse will pale — acts less spectacular, but much more horrifying. What about bacteriological warfare, what about the use of lethal gas, what about the prospect of the DNA [[terrorism ]] (developing poisons which will [[affect ]] only people who share a determinate genome)? In contrast to [[Marx ]] who relied on the notion of [[fetish ]] as a solid object whose [[stable ]] [[presence ]] obfuscates its social mediation, one should assert that [[fetishism ]] reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is "dematerialized," turned into a fluid "immaterial" virtual entity; [[money ]] fetishism will culminate with the passage to its electronic [[form]], when the last traces of its materiality will [[disappear ]] — it is only at this stage that it will assume the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you 1000 $, and no matter how many material [[notes ]] I burn, I still owe you 1000 $, the debt is inscribed somewhere in the virtual digital space… Does the same not hold also for warfare? Far from pointing towards the XXIth century warfare, the WTC twin towers explosion and collapse in September 2001 were rather the last spectacular cry of the XXth century warfare. What awaits us is something much more uncanny: the specter of an "immaterial" war where the attack is invisible — viruses, poisons which can be anywhere and nowhere. At the level of [[visible ]] material reality, nothing happens, no big explosions, and yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates… We are entering a new era of paranoiac warfare in which the biggest task will be to [[identify ]] the enemy and his weapons. Instead of a quick acting out, one should confront these difficult questions: what will "war" mean in the XXIst century? Who will be "them," if they are, clearly, neither states nor criminal gangs? One cannot resist the temptation to recall here the [[Freudian ]] opposition of the public Law and its [[obscene ]] [[superego ]] [[double]]: are, along the same line, the "international terrorist organizations" not the obscene double of the big multinational corporations — the ultimate rhizomatic [[machine]], all-present, although with no clear territorial base? Are they not the form in which nationalist and/or [[religious ]] "[[fundamentalism]]" accommodated itself to global capitalism? Do they not embody the ultimate contrafiction, with their [[particular]]/exclusive content and their global [[dynamic ]] functioning?
There is a [[partial ]] truth in the notion of the "clash of civilizations" attested here — witness the surprise of the average American: "How is it possible that these people display and [[practice ]] such a disregard for their own lives?" Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or [[universal ]] Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one's life? When, after the bombings, even the Taliban foreign minister said that he can "feel the pain" of the American children, did he not thereby confirm the hegemonic ideological role of this Bill [[Clinton]]'s trademark phrase? It effectively appears as if the [[split ]] between First World and Third World runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long [[satisfying ]] life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one's life to some transcendent Cause. Two [[philosophical ]] references immediately impose themselves apropos this ideological [[antagonism ]] between the Western consummerist way of life and the Muslim radicalism: [[Hegel ]] and [[Nietzsche]]. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called "[[passive]]" and "[[active]]" [[nihilism]]? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the [[struggle ]] up to their self-destruction. (One cannot but note the significant role of the stock [[exchange ]] in the bombings: the ultimate proof of their [[traumatic ]] impact was that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for four days, and its opening the following Monday was presented as the key [[sign ]] of things returning to normal.) Furthermore, if one perceives this opposition through the lenses of the Hegelian struggle between Master and Servant, one cannot avoid noting the [[paradox]]: although we in the West are perceived as exploiting masters, it is us who occupy the position of the Servant who, since he clings to life and its pleasures, is unable to risk his life (recall Colin Powell's notion of a high-tech war with no [[human ]] casualties), while the poor Muslim radicals are Masters ready to risk their life…
However, this notion of the "clash of civilizations" has to be thoroughly rejected: what we are witnessing today are rather clashes WITHIN each civilization. Furthermore, a brief look at the comparative history of [[Islam ]] and [[Christianity ]] tells us that the "[[human rights ]] record" of Islam (to use this anachronistic term) is much better than that of Christianity: in the past centuries, Islam was significantly more tolerant towards other [[religions ]] than Christianity. NOW it is also the time to [[remember ]] that it was through the Arabs that, in the Middle Ages, we in the Western [[Europe ]] regained access to our Ancient Greek legacy. While in no way excusing today's horror acts, these facts nonetheless clearly demonstrate that we are not dealing with a feature inscribed into Islam "as such," but with the outcome of modern socio-political conditions.
On a closer look, what IS this "clash of civilizations" effectively about? Are all real-life "clashes" not clearly related to global capitalism? The Muslim "fundamentalist" target is not only global capitalism's corroding impact on social life, but ALSO the corrupted "traditionalist" regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. The most horrifying slaughters (those in Ruanda, Kongo, and Sierra Leone) not only took place — and are taking place — within the SAME "civilization," but are also clearly related to the interplay of global economic interests. Even in the few cases which would vaguely fit the definition of the "clash of civilisations" (Bosnia and Kosovo, south of Sudan, etc.), the shadow of other interests is easily discernible.
Every feature attributed to the Other is already present in the very heart of the US: murderous fanaticism? There are today in the US itself more than two millions of the Rightist populist "fundamentalists" who also practice the terror of their own, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity. Since America is in a way "harboring" them, should the US [[Army ]] have punished the US themselves after the Oklashoma bombing? And what about the way Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reacted to the bombings, perceiving them as a sign that God lifted up its protection of the US because of the sinful lives of the Americans, putting the blame on hedonist [[materialism]], [[liberalism]], and rampant [[sexuality]], and claiming that America got what it deserved? The fact that very same condemnation of the "liberal" America as the one from the Muslim Other came from the very heart of the Amerique profonde should give as to [[think]]. America as a safe haven? When a New Yorker commented on how, after the bombings, one can no longer walk safely on the city's streets, the irony of it was that, well before the bombings, the streets of New York were well-known for the dangers of being attacked or, at least, mugged — if anything, the bombings gave rise to a new sense of [[solidarity]], with the scenes of young African-Americans helping an old [[Jewish ]] gentlemen to cross the street, scenes unimaginable a couple of days ago.
Now, in the days immediately following the bombings, it is as if we dwell in the unique time between a traumatic [[event ]] and its symbolic impact, like in those brief [[moment ]] after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent of the pain strikes us — it is open how the events will be [[symbolized]], what their symbolic efficiency will be, what acts they will be evoked to justify. If nothing else, one can clearly experience yet again the limitation of our [[democracy]]: decisions are being made which will affect the fate of all of us, and all of us just wait, aware that we are utterly powerless. Even here, in these moments of utmost tension, this link is not automatic but contingent. There are already the first bad omens, like the sudden resurrection, in the public [[discourse]], of the old Cold war term "free world": the struggle is now the one between the "free world" and the forces of darkness and terror. The question to be asked here is, of course: who then belongs to the UNFREE world? Are, say, China or Egypt part of this free world? The actual [[message ]] is, of course, that the old [[division ]] between the Western liberal-democratic countries and all the others is again enforced.
The day after the bombing, I got a message from a journal which was just about to publish a longer text of mine on [[Lenin]], telling me that they decided to postpone its publication — they considered inopportune to publish a text on Lenin immediately after the bombing. Does this not points towards the ominous ideological rearticulations which will follow, with a new Berufsverbot ([[prohibition ]] to employ radicals) much stronger and more widespread than the one in the Germany of the 70s? These days, one often hears the phrase that the struggle is now the one for democracy — true, but not quite in the way this phrase is usually meant. Already, some [[Leftist ]] friends of mine wrote me that, in these difficult moments, it is better to keep one's head down and not push forward with our agenda. Against this temptation to duck out the crisis, one should insist that NOW the [[Left ]] should provide a better [[analysis ]] — otherwise, it concedes in advance its political AND [[ethical ]] defeat in the face of the acts of quite genuine ordinary people heroism (like the passengers who, in a [[model ]] of [[rational ]] ethical act, overtook the kidnappers and provokes the early crush of the plane: if one is condemned to die soon, one should gather the strength and die in such a way as to prevent other people dying).
When, in the aftermath of September 11, the Americans en masse rediscovered their American pride, displaying flags and singing together in the public, one should emphasize more than ever that there is nothing "innocent" in this rediscovery of the American innocence, in getting rid of the sense of historical [[guilt ]] or irony which prevented many of them to fully assume being American. What this gesture amounted to was to "objectively" assume the burden of all that being "American" stood for in the past — an exemplary case of ideological [[interpellation]], of fully assuming one's symbolic mandate, which enters the stage after the perplexity caused by some historical [[trauma]]. In the traumatic aftermath of September 11, when the old security seemed momentarily shattered, what more "[[natural]]" gesture than to take refuge in the innocence of the firm ideological [[identification]]? 4 However, it is precisely such moments of [[transparent ]] innocence, of "return to basics," when the gesture of identification seems "natural," that are, from the standpoint of the critique of [[ideology]], the most obscure one's, even, in a certain way, obscurity itself. Let us recall another such innocently-transparent moment, the endlessly reproduced video-shot from Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Piece at the height of the "troubles" in 1989, of a tiny young man with a can who, alone, stands in front of an advancing gigantic tank, and courageously tries to prevent its advance, so that, when the tank tries to bypass him by turning right or left, them man also moves aside, again standing in its way:
"The representation is so powerful that it demolishes all other understandings. This streetscene, this time and this event, have come to constitute the compass point for virtually all Western journeys into the interior of the contemporary political and cultural life of China."5
And, again, this very moment of transparent clarity (things are rendered at their utmost naked: a single man against the raw force of the [[State]]) is, for our Western gaze, sustained by a cobweb of ideological implications, embodying a series of oppositions: individual versus state, peaceful resistance versus state violence, man versus machine, the inner force of a tiny individual versus the [[impotence ]] of the powerful machine… These implications, against the background of which the shot exerts its full direct impact, these "mediations" which sustain the shot's immediate impact, are NOT present for a Chinese [[observer]], since the above-mentioned series of oppositions is inherent to the European ideological legacy. And the same ideological background also overdetermines, say, our perception of the horrifying images of tiny individuals jumping from the burning WTC tower into certain death.
So what about the phrase which reverberates everywhere, "Nothing will be the same after September 11"? Significantly, this phrase is never further elaborated — it just an [[empty gesture ]] of saying something "deep" without really [[knowing ]] what we [[want ]] to say. So our first reaction to it should be: Really? Is it, rather, not that the only thing that effectively changed was that America was forced to realize the kind of world it was part of? On the other hand, such changes in perception are never without consequences, since the way we perceive our situation determines the way we act in it. Recall the [[processes ]] of collapse of a political [[regime]], say, the collapse of the Communist regimes in the Eastern Europe in 1990: at a certain moment, people all of a sudden became aware that the game is over, that the Communists are lost. The break was purely symbolic, nothing changed "in reality" — and, nonetheless, from this moment on, the final collapse of the regime was just a question of days… What if something of the same order DID occur on September 11?
We don't yet know what consequences in [[economy]], ideology, [[politics]], war, this event will have, but one thing is sure: the US, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of things only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will Americans decide to fortify further their "sphere," or to risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the deeply immoral attitude of "Why should this happen to us? Things like this don't happen HERE!", leading to more [[aggressivity ]] towards the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdued move from "A thing like this should not happen HERE!" to "A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!". Therein resides the true lesson of the bombings: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE. In short, America should learn to humbly accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the [[punishment ]] of those responsible as a sad [[duty]], not as an exhilarating retaliation.
The WTC bombings again confront us with the [[necessity ]] to resist the temptation of a double [[blackmail]]. If one simply, only and unconditionally condemns it, one cannot but appear to endorse the blatantly ideological position of the American innocence under attack by the Third World Evil; if one draws attention to the deeper socio-political causes of the Arab extremism, one cannot but appear to blame the victim which ultimately got what it deserved… The only consequent solution is here to reject this very opposition and to adopt both positions simultaneously, which can only be done if one resorts to the [[dialectical ]] [[category ]] of [[totality]]: there is no choice between these two positions, each one is one-sided and false. Far from offering a case apropos of which one can adopt a clear ethical stance, we encounter here the [[limit ]] of [[moral ]] reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime; however, this very innocence is not innocent — to adopt such an "innocent" position in today's global capitalist universe is in itself a false abstraction. The same goes for the more ideological clash of [[interpretations]]: one can claim that the attack on the WTC was an attack on what is worth fighting for in democratic freedoms — the decadent Western way of life condemned by Muslim and other fundamentalists is the universe of women's rights and multiculturalist [[tolerance]]; however, one can also claim that it was an attack on the very center and symbol of global financial capitalism. This, of course, in no way entails the compromise notion of shared guilt (terrorists are to blame, but, partially, also Americans are also to blame…) — the point is, rather, that the two sides are not really opposed, that they belong to the same field. The fact that global capitalism is a totality means that it is the dialectical [[unity ]] of itself and of its other, of the forces which resist it on "fundamentalist" ideological grounds.
Consequently, of the two main stories which emerged after September 11, both are worse, as [[Stalin ]] would have put it. The American patriotic [[narrative ]] — the innocence under siege, the surge of patriotic pride — is, of course, vain; however, is the Leftist narrative (with its Schadenfreude: the US got what they deserved, what they were for decades doing to others) really any better? The predominant reaction of European, but also American, Leftists was nothing less than scandalous: all imaginable stupidities were said and written, up to the "[[feminist]]" point that the WTC towers were two [[phallic ]] [[symbols]], waiting to be destroyed ("[[castrated]]"). Was there not something petty and miserable in the [[mathematics ]] reminding one of the [[holocaust ]] revisionism (what are the 6000 [[dead ]] against millions in Ruanda, Kongo, etc.)? And what about the fact that CIA (co)created Taliban and Bin Laden, financing and helping them to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan? Why was this fact quoted as an argument AGAINST attacking them? Would it not be much more [[logical ]] to claim that it is precisely their duty to get us rid of the monster they created? The moment one thinks in the [[terms ]] of "yes, the WTC collapse was a [[tragedy]], but one should not fully solidarize with the victims, since this would mean supporting US imperialism," the ethical catastrophy is already here: the only appropriate stance is the unconditional solidarity will ALL victims. The ethical stance proper is here replaced with the moralizing mathematics of guilt and horror which misses the key point: the terrifying death of each individual is absolute and incomparable. In short, let us make a simple [[mental ]] experiment: if you detect in yourself any restraint to fully empathize with the victims of the WTC collapse, if you feel the urge to qualify your [[empathy ]] with "yes, but what about the millions who suffer in Africa…", you are not demonstrating your Third World sympathize, but merely the mauvaise foi which bears witness to your implicit patronizing racist attitude towards the Third World victims. (More precisely, the problem with such comparative statements is that they are necessary and inadmissible: one HAS to make them, one HAS to make the point that much worse horrors are taken place around the world on a daily basis — but one has to do it without getting involved in the obscene mathematics of guilt.)
It must be said that, within the scope of these two extremes (the violent retaliatory act versus the new [[reflection ]] about the global situation and America's role in it), the reaction of the Western powers till now was surprisingly considerate (no wonder it caused the violent anti-American [[outburst ]] of Ariel Sharon!). Perhaps the greatest irony of the situation is that the main "collateral damage" of the Western reaction is the focus on the plight of the Afghani refugees, and, more generally, on the catastrophic food and health situation in Afghanistan, so that, sometimes, military [[action ]] against Taliban is almost presented as a means to guarantee the safe delivery of the humanitarian aid — as Tony Blair said, perhaps, we will have to bomb Taliban in order to secure the food transportation and distribution. Although, of course, such large-scale publicized humanitarian actions are in themselves ideologically charged, involving the debilitating degradation of the Afghani people to [[helpless ]] victims, and reducing the Taliban to a parasite terrorizing them, it is significant to acknowledge that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan presents a much larger catastrophy than the WTC bombings.
Another way in which the Left miserably failed is that, in the weeks after the bombing, it reverted to the old mantra "Give peace a [[chance]]! War does not stop violence!" — a true case of [[hysterical ]] precipitation, reacting to something which will not even happen in the expected form. Instead of the [[concrete ]] analysis of the new [[complex ]] situation after the bombings, of the chances it gives to the Left to propose its own [[interpretation ]] of the events, we got the blind ritualistic chant "No war!", which fails to address even the elementary fact, de facto acknowledged by the US government itself (through its postponing of the retaliatory action), that this is not a war like others, that the bombing of Afghanistan is not a solution. A sad situation, in which George [[Bush ]] showed more power of reflection than most of the Left!
No wonder that anti-Americanism was most discernible in "big" European nations, especially [[France ]] and Germany: it is part of their resistance to [[globalization]]. One often hears the complaint that the recent trend of globalization threatens the [[sovereignty ]] of the [[Nation]]-States; here, however, one should qualify this statement: WHICH states are most exposed to this threat? It is not the small states, but the second-rang (ex-)world powers, countries like United Kingdom, Germany and France: what they [[fear ]] is that, once fully immersed in the newly emerging global [[Empire]], they will be reduced at the same level as, say, [[Austria]], Belgium or even Luxembourg. The [[refusal ]] of "Americanization" in France, shared by many Leftists and Rightist nationalists, is thus ultimately the refusal to accept the fact that France itself is losing its hegemonic role in Europe. The results of this refusal are often comical — at a recent philosophical colloquium, a [[French ]] Leftist [[philosopher ]] complained how, apart from him, there are now practically no French [[philosophers ]] in France: [[Derrida ]] is sold to American deconstructionism, the academia is overwhelmed by [[Anglo-Saxon ]] cognitivism… A simple mental experiment is indicative here: let us imagine someone from Serbia claiming that he is the only remaining truly Serb philosopher — he would have been immediately denounced and ridiculed as a nationalist. The levelling of weight between larger and smaller Nation-States should thus be counted among the beneficial effects of globalization: beneath the contemptuous deriding of the new Eastern European [[post-Communist ]] states, it is easy to discern the contours of the wounded [[Narcissism ]] of the European "great nations." Here, a [[good ]] dose of Lenin's sensitivity for the small nations (recall his [[insistence ]] that, in the [[relationship ]] between large and small nations, one should always allow for a greater degree of the "small" [[nationalism]]) would be helpful. Interestingly, the same matrix was reproduced within ex-[[Yugoslavia]]: not only for the Serbs, but even for the majority of the Western powers, Serbia was self-evidently perceived as the only ethnic group with enough substance to form its own state. Throughout the 90s, even the radical democratic critics of [[Milosevic ]] who rejected Serb nationalism, acted on the presupposition that, among the ex-Yugoslav republics, it is only Serbia which has democratic potential: after overthrowing Milosevic, Serbia alone can turn into a thriving democratic state, while other ex-Yugoslav nations are too "provincial" to sustain their own democratic State… is this not the echo of [[Friedrich Engels]]' well-known scathing remarks about how the small [[Balkan ]] nations are politically reactionary since their very existence is a reaction, a survival of the past?
America's "holiday from history" was a fake: America's peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere. These days, the predominant point of view is that of an innocent gaze confronting unspeakable Evil which stroke from the Outside — and, again, apropos this gaze, one should gather the strength and apply to it also Hegel's well-known dictum that the Evil resides (also) in the innocent gaze itself which perceives Evil all around itself. There is thus an element of truth even in the most constricted Moral Majority [[vision ]] of the depraved America dedicated to mindless pleasures, in the [[conservative ]] horror at this netherworld of sexploitation and pathological violence: what they don't get is merely the Hegelian speculative [[identity ]] between this netherworld and their own position of fake purity — the fact that so many fundamentalist preachers turned out to be secret [[sexual ]] perverts is more than a contingent empirical fact. When the infamous Jimmy Swaggart claimed that the fact that he visited prostitutes only gave additional strength to his preaching (he knew from intimate struggle what he was preaching against), although undoubtedly hypocritical at the immediate [[subjective ]] level, is nonetheless objectively true.
Can one imagine a greater irony than the fact that the first codename for the US operation against terrorists was "Infinite Justice" (later changed in response to the reproach of the American Islam clerics that only God can exert infinite justice)? Taken seriously, this name is profoundly ambiguous: either it means that the Americans have the right to ruthlessly destroy not only all terrorists but also all who gave then material, moral, ideological etc. support (and this process will be by definition endless in the precise sense of the Hegelian "bad infinity" — the work will never be really accomplished, there will always remain some other terrorist threat…); or it means that the justice exerted must be truly infinite in the strict Hegelian sense, i.e., that, in relating to others, it has to relate to itself — in short, that it has to ask the question of how we ourselves who exert justice are involved in what we are fighting against. When, on September 22 2001, Derrida received the Theodor [[Adorno ]] award, he referred in his [[speech ]] to the WTC bombings: "My unconditional compassion, addressed at the victims of the September 11, does not prevent me to say it loudly: with regard to this crime, I do not believe that anyone is politically guiltless." This [[self-relating]], this inclusion of oneself into the picture, is the only true "infinite justice."
In the electoral campaign, President Bush named as the most important person in his life [[Jesus ]] [[Christ]]. Now he has a unique chance to prove that he meant it seriously: for him, as for all Americans today, "[[Love ]] thy [[neighbor]]!" means "Love the Muslims!" OR IT MEANS NOTHING AT ALL.
1. See [[Alain Badiou]], Le siecle, forthcoming from [[Editions du Seuil]], [[Paris]].
2. Another case of ideological [[censorship]]: when fireworkers' widows were interviewed on CNN, most of them gave the expected performance: tears, prayers… all except one of them who, without a tear, said that she does not pray for her [[deceived ]] husband, because she [[knows ]] that prayer will not get him back. When asked if she [[dreams ]] of revenge, she calmly said that that would be the true [[betrayal ]] of her husband: if he were to survive, he would insist that the worst thing to do is to succumb to the urge to retaliate… useless to add that this fragment was shown only once and then disappeared from the repetitions of the same block.
3. See Chapter III in Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of [[Film]], Bloomington: Indiana [[University ]] Press 2000.
4. I rely here on my critical elaboration of [[Althusser]]'s notion of interpellation in chapter 3 of Metastases of [[Enjoyment]], [[London]]: Verso Books 1995.
5. Michael Dutton, Streetlife China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998, p. 17.
* 10/7/01 — Reflections on WTC — an earlier version of the book, Welcome to [[the Desert of the Real]].
* [[Welcome to the Desert of the Real]]]. ‘’The Symptom’’. Volume 2. Spring 2002. <>
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