What is Slavoj Žižek up to in the Guardian?

I’ve unfortunately just read a Guardian article called “On 9/11, New Yorkers Faced the Fire in the Minds of Men” by Slavoj Žižek
and thought it was cobblers. Here are some bits I disliked marginally more than the other bits.

This lack of “cognitive mapping” is crucial. All we see are the disastrous effects, with their cause so abstract that, in the case of WTC, one can easily imagine exactly the same film in which the twin towers would have collapsed as the result of an earthquake. What if the same film took place in a bombed high-rise building in Beirut? That’s the point: it cannot take place there. Such a film would have been dismissed as “subtle pro-Hizbullah terrorist propaganda”. The result is that the political message of the two films resides in their abstention from delivering a direct political message. It is the message of an implicit trust in one’s government: when under attack, one just has to do one’s duty.

Now, the important phrase here is “would have been dismissed as”. For all I know, Žižek could be perfectly correct in this, such a film could well have been dismissed in such a way (although dismissed by whom is rather unclear). But we can’t safely infer from this that said dismissal would necessarily be a valid one. Nor can we infer that since an apolitical film about a Beirut bombing would have been dismissed as propaganda then a similarly apolitical film about 9/11 actually is propaganda. And if by abstaining from delivering a political message, a film about 9/11 delivers a political message anyway, then it would be impossible for such a film not to deliver a political message. This, although seemingly quite debatable in itself, may be exactly what Žižek is trying to say. But it makes me wonder why he didn’t just come out and say it. Perhaps it’s because without a cognitive association with the insidious veiling of political messages which subliminally program their audience to unquestioningly obey the whole thing seems rather more benign.

This is where the problem begins. The omnipresent invisible threat of terror legitimises the all-too-visible protective measures of defence. The difference of the war on terror from previous 20th-century struggles, such as the cold war, is that while the enemy was once clearly identified as the actually existing communist system, the terrorist threat is spectral. It is like the characterisation of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction: most people have a dark side, she had nothing else. Most regimes have a dark oppressive spectral side, the terrorist threat has nothing else.

Seemingly then the threat of terror is invisible. Furthermore it is spectral. Now I would think that the most charitable reading of this would be that the threat of terror is difficult to obtain a holistic picture of or something like that. Fair enough. Even though by using that term we may unfortunately create an association with the things of superstition – ghosts and spooks – i.e. stuff that doesn’t exist. But (of course!) I’m not one to be pedantic – so, sure, OK, fine. But to also directly contrast the threat of terror with something you make a specific point of describing as “actually existing” doesn’t seem to leave much room for misinterpretation – the threat of terror doesn’t exist. That would explain it being invisible then I suppose. And what is that comparison at the end trying to say? What does he even mean by “terrorist threat” anymore? Perhaps Žižek has simply lapsed into poetry. Who knows.

The power that presents itself as being constantly under threat and thus merely defending itself against an invisible enemy is in danger of becoming a manipulative one. Can we really trust those in power, or are they evoking the threat to discipline and control us? Thus, the lesson is that, in combating terror, it is more crucial than ever for state politics to be democratically transparent. Unfortunately, we are now paying the price for the cobweb of lies and manipulations by the US and UK governments in the past decade that reached a climax in the tragicomedy of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, the enemy are no longer non-existent but merely invisible again. Does he actually mean “non-existent” by “invisible” now? Errr, hard to tell. But one thing we can apparently know for sure is that any power fighting such an enemy is in danger of becoming manipulative. Presumably by “danger” he means “relatively real danger” and by “manipulative” – Machiavellian? Up to a point? I’d best go with that. So – is such a power in that kind of danger? Well I don’t really know but I suppose it could be, yes – if and only if we’re talking about a genuinely fictional enemy – and so far the only way Žižek’s managed to get that idea into the equation is through semantic slight of hand. Talking of which – what does that “thus” think it’s playing at? “Can we really trust those in power? Thus we must have this!” I mean, it’s bit odd to put a “thus” directly after a question. Well, if we think Žižek has put forward a strong enough case already (and frankly, who wouldn’t?) one might just take that question to be rhetorical. It’s difficult to tell specifically which lies and manipulations constitute this “cobweb” or why it’s parsimonious to think of them (and their climax) as such and not just fucking stupid mistakes but anyway every tip has an iceberg. Consequents affirmed while you wait.

Recall August’s alert and the thwarted attempt to blow up a dozen planes on their way from London to the US. No doubt the alert was not a fake; to claim otherwise would be paranoiac. But a suspicion remains that it was a self-serving spectacle to accustom us to a permanent state of emergency.

So, we’ve established that to doubt the authenticity of last Augusts alerts would be paranoiac, but – a suspicion remains! Presumably then suspicion can only remain in the minds of the paranoid, for how can you not foster any doubt about an authenticity yet still be suspicious of it? But what a weird thing to say! The minds of the paranoid are suspicious about all kinds of things – the authenticity of the moon landings, whether governments are really comprised of humans and not reptilians from another world, mind controls devices and so on. It wouldn’t be prudent to go around mentioning whenever paranoid people are suspicious of something, so why has it been mentioned here? Perhaps Žižek wished to smuggle in some evidence-free credibility to the idea that the August alerts were a conspiracy while leaving himself some (but seemingly not enough) wiggle-room for denial were the issue ever raised. Perhaps not – but a suspicion remains.

What space for manipulation do such events – where all that is publicly visible are the anti-terrorist measures themselves – open up? Is it not that they simply demand too much from us, the ordinary citizen: a degree of trust that those in power lost long ago? This is the sin for which Bush and Blair should never be forgiven.

Well hold on. Let’s first be clear that the “events” in question here are not fake security alerts. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking they were seeing as how it followed so swiftly on from that hand-wave of a previous sentence. So – what space for manipulation do such events open up? I’ll try not to dwell too much on yet another claim of terrorisms apparent “invisibly” being loaded into the question because I’m nice like that. And because mercifully, Žižek then chooses to break with habit and answers with a moment of unparalleled crystal-clarity. Yeah. Fat chance.

September 11 is the symbol of the end of this utopia, a return to real history. A new era is here with new walls everywhere, between Israel and Palestine, around the EU, on the US-Mexico and Spain-Morocco borders. It is an era with new forms of apartheid and legalised torture. As President Bush said after September 11, America is in a state of war. But the problem is that the US is not in a state of war. For the large majority, daily life goes on and war remains the business of state agencies. The distinction between the state of war and peace is blurred. We are entering a time in which a state of peace itself can be at the same time a state of emergency.

Is he saying that walls on national boarders like the Spain/Morocco one are examples of apartheid or isn’t he? Don’t know. But unless he’s referring to any other apartheids that have sprung up both since and because of 9/11 I guess he must be. I suppose strengthening boarder security could be thought of as a “new form of apartheid” but only if you somewhat arbitrarily redefined the term. He could have used a more appropriate word, but then again that would have come at the expense of losing all the precious rhetoric that “apartheid” carries. Besides, it wasn’t like Mexicans were allowed to merrily waltz into the US or Moroccans into Spain before these walls went up. But anyway – just because George Bush goes around using a lot of scary quasi-fundamentalist rhetoric (which no one has to convince me he does, and you can take it from me, it’s hardly admiration for the current US government that motivated this post) this doesn’t give us logical carte blanche to wilfully misinterpret any old thing he says in order to bolster our own arguments. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that. When there is talk of a “state of war [with terrorists]”, I’d have thought the most charitable way to take it is in a more metaphorical sense, like the “war on drugs”. In using that term, obviously no one’s trying to make us believe that submarines piloted by Heroin are approaching, that crack is trying to annex part of Guernsey or that we must permit the government to look in all our bums whenever they feel like it for our own protection. It simply means “we are emphatically against drugs/terrorists and we are going to fight them”. Now, in the name of said state of war freedoms might well be getting frustrated to a worrying degree; possibly even with sinister aims – but I’m not about to go into all that now. And in claiming a state of war exists Bush is undoubtedly guilty of rhetorical low-redefinition but this isn’t good reason to think that he is trying to conjure-up some sort of Orwellian phantom war in order to keep the population receiving the face stamping treatment – forever (or for any other duration for that matter). Nor does it seem very sensible to try to attach to his statement that rather contrived “emergency/peace” bit of quasi-doublethink. Now Žižek may genuinely not have intended to say any such thing. But again it’s hard to say as he doesn’t seem to be a great fan of simply saying what’s on his mind. And I wonder why that might be.

Now if you wanted to present an argument in favour of a conspiracy theory, why would you use a whole load of equivocation, sly-winking implication and plain old dishonesty to try to con people into believing you? Why wouldn’t you at least have the balls to just say what you meant? Perhaps because you’d fool less of the people less of the time? Well that’s ironic.


2 Responses to “What is Slavoj Žižek up to in the Guardian?”

  1. 1 Philip Pilkington July 4, 2008 at 12:54 am

    Good Lord, you must be even more bored than I am, to have read that was unneccesary, but to have written it!!! I mean if you took the trouble to “deconstruct” some of Zizek’s actual philosophical or psychological WORK, work which I’m none too fond of, then maybe there would be some results to display, but to take the trouble of deconstructing rhetorical propaganda?

    Really! What have you shown at the end of the day? That Zizek is an anti-Bush leftist who has no problem with cobbling together other leftist’s pet hates, polishing the end product up with pseudo-intellectual jargon and publishing it in the Guardian? Congratulations…

    There’s no conspiracy theory, implicit or otherwise, just rhetoric structured around a general distrust of the Western media’s portrayal of terrorism and of how certain governments and government institutions have used these images to cynically pursue certain ends.

    Next week: How neo-liberal economists tend to implicitly favour free-market over protectionist policies. Also: a thrilling exposition on the implicit use of pro-Communist sentiments in early Soviet propaganda…

  2. 2 Ed July 4, 2008 at 1:42 am

    It’s your third paragraph that gives the game away. It’s an oasis in a dessert of pudding: “I like what Žižek said, and I’m a bit cross that you criticised it.” Yes, well, not as cross as I am.

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