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(Ninth in a series)

When it came to 9/11 sympathies too absent to squander, Slavo Zizek actually beat Baudrillard to the text. On September 14, 2001, only three days after 9/11, he first posted to the internet “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” which he revised and extended several times. Later, like Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism, it was published in book form by Verso. Zizek’s provocative considerations of a wide swath of popular culture make him an unusually accessible and fun theorist, and Zizek is well aware of this surface appeal, which he terms, in his preface to the” The Zizek Reader, “a proper symbolic lure.” Lure to what?

In contrast to the cliché of the academic writer beneath whose impassive style the reader can catch an occasional glimpse of a so-called lively personality, I always perceived myself as the author of books whose excessively and compulsively “witty” texture serves as the envelope of a fundamental coldness [Zizek’s emphasis], of a “machinic” deployment of the line of thought which follows its path with utter indifference [Zizek’s emphasis again] toward the pathology of so-called human considerations [my emphasis].”

Will I state the obvious by calling this is a deeply telling statement? Great intellects of both a philosophic and artistic nature have often considered themselves this way. It is the obeisance they pay to what they deem the totemic purity of their intellectual or artistic gift. It is James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Joyce, though, was profoundly indifferent to politics, and to influencing human life in any structural or material way. Once politically interested intellectuals begin to talk this way, however, the refining fire that destroys one humanity in the dream of forging a new one may be a mere historical opportunity and ideological “error” away. When you see them reach for their spectacles and utter expressions like “so-called human considerations,” you may someday yourself, in the worst case, need to reach for your gun, war being “not the answer” or whatever.

Zizek, a Lacanian Marxist, daringly attempts the reinvigoration and resurrection of an idea at its nadir. What more daring tack to take, then, when one finds oneself under attack and in retreat, than to turn and charge the assaulting force? Thus, Zizek’s guerilla sortie of attempting to render empty and harmless the concept of “totalitarianism,” which, in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? he calls a mental “stopgap” inhibiting thought. It is a device used by “conformist liberal scoundrels” (“running dogs” was presumably just too retro) for the purpose of “blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement.” By legitimizing the word’s use, according to Zizek, one is refusing to engage in specific, contextual historical analysis and succumbing to the intellectual precepts of liberal democracy, the same liberalism that the Guardian’s Madeline Bunting would decry as “intolerant” about three weeks later.

The Left has accepted the basic coordinates of liberal democracy (“democracy” versus “totalitarianism“) and is now trying to define its (op)position within this space. The first thing to do, therefore, is fearlessly to violate these liberal taboos: So what if one is accused of being “anti-democratic,” “totalitarian…“

So what, indeed.  Zizek does nothing if not openly reveal himself:

[W]hat I find theoretically and politically engaging in the religious legacy is not the abstract messianic promise of some redemptive Otherness, but, on the contrary, religion in its properly dogmatic and institutional aspect (preface to the Zizek Reader, emphasis added).

For Zizek in “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” (“the real” being a fundamental concept in Lacanian theory) the real is death, violent and destructive death – the apocalyptic reality behind the Matrix, whose movie Morpheus speaks the phrase, or of the non-cinematic Sarajevo a decade before 9/11. It is not any transcendent or metaphysical sphere, or ineffably primordial as in Lacan; no, it is death, deprivation, and desolation – while the commercial prosperity of the first world is a form of simulation, a social Potemkin village that masks the dispossession of others.

But on 9/11, Americans

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.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

We will remind millions of American veterans, and the families of hundreds of thousands of war dead, from four major wars in the twentieth century, as well as some lesser wars, (wars that those individual Americans did not, mostly, have to fight in their own self-defense and which as individuals they believed they were in large degree fighting in the service of others) that they have heretofore been protected from it. We will, as well, remind the families of the thousands of American dead and tens of thousands wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hundreds of thousands who have served there

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.

It astonishes, or perhaps it doesn’t, that an intellectually elevated advocate for the fundamental reality of human misery, committed to the idea that Americans live in a contrastingly vacant consumerist simulation of reality, could so overlook this persistent, selfless individual American engagement with the reality of war and death. Even granting how much of that burden falls on so small a segment of American society, there is in that society something that produces this nobility, found, as it is now, nowhere else in the world, certainly not in the Europe of which Zizek is more the product than he recognizes.

It is in the nature, though, of theorists like Zizek to postulate reality as a form of poverty, here a poverty of experience – existence at its lowest manifestation. In so doing, Zizek reveals himself to be more in thrall to violence than those he believes the endemic perpetrators of it. He represents, further, how leftist postmodern theorists, and the Marxists who cleverly stroke those theorists anti-imperial tool while spitting on them, come to fetishize violent tropes. So Baudrillard, in writing of a catastrophic act of real violence, can write of the “pathetic violence” of the “discourses” that oppose it without feeling squeamish about producing drivel. But Zizek will play even more dangerously:

[T]he horrible experience of the Stalinist terror should in no way inhibit us in our search for a ‘good terror’ as the key ingredient of any truly radical politics: there is no effective freedom without ‘terror’ – that is, without some form of the unconditional pressure that threatens the very core of our being. [preface to the Zizek Reader]

That last distinctio is seemingly intended to deactualize the implications of what has just been said – to theorize it, so as not to, in effect, too actually terrorize by it. But since Zizek, we know, feels unconstrained by “so-called human considerations,” he may be less concerned with the sensibilities of his readers than he is compelled to convert the actual into the conceptual, the human figure into the figure of speech. Which would be true to historical form.

Such was the unsquandered non-sympathy of the leading light of left academic theorizing, an even greater star in the intellectual firmament today than he was on 9/11.

Tomorrow: Coming to America

AJA

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