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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slavoj Zizek, Our Heir to George Carlin, Does Standup at Occupy Wall Street

I do not agree with those who say that Slavoj Zizek is our generation's great radical philosopher after the death of Foucault, but I am willing to entertain the possibility -- and I certainly don't consider this an insulting proposition -- that Zizek may turn out to be our generation's wildcard radical comedian after the death of George Carlin. And it is in that spirit that I recommend to your attention Zizek's very fine stand-up Sunday afternoon at the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, as transcribed by Impose. I offer up a few observations of my own after the transcript.
They are saying we are all losers, but the true losers are down there on Wall Street. They were bailed out by billions of our money. We are called socialists, but here there is always socialism for the rich. They say we don’t respect private property, but in the 2008 financial crash-down more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks. They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.

We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, "Hey, look down!"

In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom -- war on terror and so on -- falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.

There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the rule is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?

Remember. The problem is not corruption or greed. The problem is the system. It forces you to be corrupt. Beware not only of the enemies, but also of false friends who are already working to dilute this process. In the same way you get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat, they will try to make this into a harmless, moral protest. A decaffienated process. But the reason we are here is that we have had enough of a world where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after marriage agencies are now outsourcing our love life, we can see that for a long time, we allow our political engagement also to be outsourced. We want it back.

We are not Communists if Communism means a system which collapsed in 1990. Remember that today those Communists are the most efficient, ruthless Capitalists. In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism, but doesn’t need democracy. Which means when you criticize Capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and Capitalism is over. The change is possible.

What do we perceive today as possible? Just follow the media. On the one hand, in technology and sexuality, everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics, you can have sex with animals or whatever, but look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible. We lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, they tell you, "Impossible, this means totalitarian state." There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.

Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not American here. But the conservative fundamentalists who claim they really are American have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It’s the holy spirit. What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street, there are pagans who are worshiping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering “What a nice time we had here.” Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire. Thank you very much.
There are some great jokes in there, jokes that righteously and devastatingly skewer neoliberal pieties, jokes that pre-emptively ridicule the narcissistic self-indulgence that can domesticate resistance.

I for one am not so wedded to a particular radical identity (be it Marxist, socialist, anarchist, Green, punk, queergeek, whatever) that I won't be pleased to live in a society that still thinks itself "capitalist" but happens also to be (as our own society so conspicuously is not) sustainable, consensual, democratic, equitable, and diverse, via environmental and election reform and amplifications of welfare entitlements to include guaranteed income, healthcare, education, and so on. Nor do I feel particularly ill-disposed to the vital work of Marxists, socialists, anarchists, Greens, punks, queergeeks, and others (including the ones in me) to a society worth living in -- many kinds of ideas, many kinds of support, many kinds of resistances are useful. Doctrinal disputes have a place -- thinking our way to sound judgments about what we are doing and what it all means always has a place in any society that is not anti-intellectual and hence hostile to freedom -- but such disputes obviously shouldn't displace the substantive work of education, agitation, organization, expression out of which a society worth living in is to be made, peer to peer. I'm not sure that Zizek would sympathize with that sentiment or not, or with what I mean by it, but to the extent that he might want to declare me an advocate of decaffeinated resistance for saying it, as always-already assimilated to the neoliberal Borg for saying it, I think he would be wrong and he would also be indulging in my view in his own version of falling in love with himself (or perhaps with the sound of his own voice, a foible a good comedian can surely be forgiven) at the expense of getting the job he claims to care about done.

Now, I spend a lot of time here on Amor Mundi, and also in my teaching, critiquing futurological discourses and sub(cult)ural formations. I will step back for a moment from all the wacky things individual futurologists say -- about how likely and how soon certain lucky or faithful people are to be uploaded into Holodeck Heaven or shiny robot bodies or therapized into comic book superheros or wallowing in nanobotic treasure caves under the loving ministrations of a history-ending Robot God sooper dad, for example -- or all the kooky guru wannabes and True Believers and pseudo-scientific cranks and celebrity CEO fluffers and loudmouthed self-actualization coaches and boner pill muscle powder anti-aging cream hucksters and endless white boys with toys thrown up by these marginal fanboy sub(cult)ures -- all of which are always fun and often important to critique or at any rate ridicule on their own terms. But I also regard futurology more crucially as simply the most hyberbolic of the marketing and promotional norms and forms that now suffuse public discourse to our ruin more generally as well as the quintessential discourse of neoliberal developmentalism formally speaking, and consequently as a profoundly clarifying illustration and symptom of more prevailing pathologies in contemporary life that must be understood and combated.

And so, I must say I am also especially interested in the connections Zizek is cracking wise about in his routine concerning the futurological imaginary functioning as a profound foreclosure of the revolutionary or even radical imaginary, a point I find myself arguing regularly with would-be "revolutionary" techno-transcendentalists. This is of course clearest when Zizek points out, in connection with alien invasion and genocidal pandemic and asteroid collision flicks that "It’s easy to imagine the end of the world... But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." This is a good joke, and he repeats it a lot, as he should. It hits us where it hurts.

Zizek points out the crucial complementary of our hyperbolic techno-fetishistic aspirational imagination and the circumscription of our democratic aspirational imagination. He jokes, that "in technology... everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics... but look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible. We lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, they tell you, Impossible, this means totalitarian state! There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare."

Of course, there has been no increase at the upper bound of human longevity at all, there has been very little improvement in post-pubescent longevity (most gains are artifacts of decreases in infant mortality, and while scattered heart disease and cancer treatments are nothing to sneeze at they hardly inspire confidence in multi! century! lifespans! around! the! corner!), and although we once managed the trick it isn't actually true anymore that we can put someone on the Moon anyway. That we could improve healthcare by spending more on it (or, better, spending less on it through a single-payer system) is something we know is true because it is happening all over the world elsewhere, that we could raise taxes without hurting the economy while providing more security for our citizens is something we know because we were very recently doing it ourselves as is palpably available to the memories of the vast majority of our own citizens now living. The techno-fixation of our discourse (for which the Robot Cultists and superlative futurologists provide the especially gaudy and clarifying iceberg tip of an utterly prevalent vastly disseminated technocratic techno-reductionist techno-festishistic techno-developmentalist institutional and marketing and policy-making and subject-forming hegemony) does not just substitute a profoundly delusive destructive anti-democratizing aspirational imagination for sensible sustainable democrating possibilities but it even substitutes palpably idiotic fancies for the most modest and obvious imaginable progressive possibilties. The catastrophic impact of this substitution plays out in one political domain after another, but it is possibly its potential via futurological "geo-engineering" discourse to undermine environmentalism that worries me most of all, given the urgency of the problems of anthropogenic climate change, resource descent, and toxic polluting. Only a comic genius like Zizek could manage a really good joke on that particular subject, so I won't even try.

1 comment:

JD Tuyes said...

keep the dream of the shiny robot body alive!