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What is "Reality"? Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Žižek - Book Overview and Thoughts
“We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” - Slavoj Žižek
Žižek describes the 20th century as the stage of the "passion for the real." He claims that people in this century became really interested in experiencing reality directly, without any filters or anticipated plans.
We perceive “the Real” as a nightmare because it is very real, and fictionalizing it allows us to better understand and cope with certain aspects of true reality.
The United States of America, during the 9/11 attacks, was given the opportunity to reflect on the kind of world they were living in and the one they had built as the world's most powerful country. Nonetheless, they chose to reaffirm their traditional ideological beliefs, and have absolutely no feelings of responsibility or guilt towards the impoverished Third World that was forced to participate in global capitalism.
Happiness is just a category of mere Being, and, as such, it is confused, indeterminate and inconsistent.
Happiness it's not necessarily about fully understanding and embracing all our desires, but rather about existing in a state where desires, including those beyond mere pleasure, remain somewhat unresolved.
Knowing too much leads to feelings of unhappiness. As a result, "blessed ignorance" can occasionally lead to a better sense of fulfillment or happiness.
During an election, people might choose a candidate despite doubts about their integrity, simply because they consider the alternative worse. This paradox shows that campaigns against corruption or issues within democracy often get co-opted by far-right populist movements. To put it another way, democracy is just an illusion and we should be conscious of the inherent imperfection and vulnerability of it.
Žižek claims that unconventional ideas should be considered in order for real transformation to happen. We need risk and dramatic action without worrying about all the possible outcomes.
Individualism and its idea on "focusing just on ourselves,” makes social reality continue its course without some real understanding. This means that for true fulfillment in any kind of relationship, including communities, we all need a third point to focus on.
Žižek mentions the concept of the Homo sacer, which represents the distinction between individuals who are part of the legal system and those who are not. It is a Roman law figure that was used to describe a person who was outlawed and may be killed by anybody, but must not be sacrificed in a ritual of faith. In other words, it represents the line between humanity and the symbolic order.
Žižek is a sophisticated thinker who, if we had to categorize him, we may read as a structuralist. However, he is more than just that, his methodology has influences from Marxism, Hegelianism, post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis. All this makes him a complex thinker that requires readers to have some background in certain topics in order to really grasp his ideas.
That being said; today we'll talk about one of his short books, "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," which is work that may be considered outdated since it discusses the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Nonetheless, it is a book worth discussing, at least on the surface, and I will try to make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand the symbolic meaning of important political reactions and events that have influenced the world we live in today.
But, before we begin, I should say that I will omit some parts of the book that may appear repetitive or are simply more examples of the same idea. This will generally make the content less lengthy and more to the point. Those familiar with Žižek will understand what I mean; each chapter has an overall message, yet he goes off on tangents and illustrates the same topic from multiple perspectives.
Now, without further delay, let’s begin with a joke. But not just any joke; this is a joke that sets the stage for what Žižek will talk about in his book, namely how communication can be manipulated under certain conditions:
“A German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: 'Let's establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it's true; if it's written in red ink, it's false.
After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: 'Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an allair-the only thing you can't get is red ink.
The structure here is more refined than it might appear: although the worker is unable to signal that what he is saying is a lie in the prearranged way, he nonetheless succeeds in getting his message across - how? By inscribing the very reference to the code into the encoded message, as one of its elements.
Of course, this is the standard problem of self-reference: since the letter is written in blue, is its entire content therefore not true? The answer is that the very fact that the lack of red ink is mentioned, signals that it should have been written in red ink. The nice point is that this mention of the lack of red ink produces the effect of truth independently of its own literal truth: even if red ink really was available, the lie that it is unavailable is the only way to get the true message across in this specific condition of censorship.”
This joke shows a very effective critique of ideology. Not only in authoritarian extreme circumstances like this one, but also in a general libertarian way of life. We can say we have every freedom we want, but when we lack the "red ink," we nevertheless "feel free," simply because we lack the vocabulary to express our unfreedom.
Passion for the Real: Traverse the Fantasy
Žižek describes the twentieth century as the stage of the "passion for the real." He claims that people in this century became really interested in experiencing reality directly, without any filters or anticipated plans. This was different from the 19th century when people focused on big ideas and projects for the future. The 20th century was more about wanting to experience the actual thing itself, even if it was intense and extreme, rather than just talking about it or planning for it.
Moreover, there are several examples of this in the chapter but one of them talks about Bertolt Brecht, a famous playwright, who in July 1953, while he was on his way from his home to the theater, saw Soviet tanks heading to a street.
These tanks were being sent to stop a rebellion. But instead of being scared or angry, Brecht did something surprising: he waved at the tanks as they passed by.
Later that day, Brecht wrote in his diary that this moment made him feel like he wanted to join the Communist Party, even though he had never been a member before. This might seem strange because the tanks were being used to put down a rebellion, and the situation was violent and harsh.
However, the situation shows the paradox of the "passion for the real," as it is its polar opposite, a total spectacle. And one of the most famous examples of this century is the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
To start making sense of this, let's imagine the act of cutting ourselves with a knife. This act, according to Žižek, is a desperate attempt to return to reality. It is a pathological phenomenon that attempts to return to some level of normality in order to avoid a breakdown. However, as we can all guess, it concludes in a spectacle, a symbol of destruction.
Now, the way our lives revolve around human made events, concepts and even products, can blur the lines in between what is real and what is fake. This does not mean that we cannot literally make a critical observation and know what is real and fake, but the way human made objects lack genuine substance of reality can start to play with our minds.
In other words, our world has become unreal and devoid of substance as a result of its infatuation with materialism. One way to see this is that, even after tremendous events such as terrorist attacks, the reality being seen through the television does not represent the reality of the situation. It becomes almost like a spectacle, similar to the special effects in movies.
In the case of the terrorist attacks, people felt motivated to view the footage again and again, feeling a strange satisfaction despite the tragic nature of the event.
This feeling is described by Žižek as "jouissance," which is a kind of excessive pleasure that, even in the face of tragedy, illustrates the powerful and complex ways in which human emotions and responses can work. It is a realm where pain and pleasure are indistinguishable from one another.
This means that it is when we saw these towers collapsing on the television that we became aware of the falsity of “reality TV shows”: even if these shows are for real people acting on them. Žižek provides an example of this with the movie "The Truman Show,” where the main character gradually realizes that his life is a 24-hour TV show.
Moreover, this film illustrates a sense of unreality in our modern society. The idea is that our hyper consumerist culture creates a kind of "hyperreality" where things seem real but lack true substance. Again, one example is that even after major events like the World Trade Center collapse, the media shows a very different view of the situation, creating a sense of unreality even in our daily lives.
The media's way of showing such events keeps a distance between the viewers and the victims, creating a sense of separation from the real situation. This ties back to the idea that even real-life events can take on a staged or unreal quality due to media manipulation.
This brings us to the conclusion that Hollywood has an immense control over ideology and the lines it creates between reality and fiction. The September 11 attacks were not entirely unexpected because similar scenarios had been shown in movies; and our exposure to such fantasies in films influences our expectations and responses to actual real events. Hence the way we react to them, and how we experience jouissance when exposed to them.
In other words, the real events are merely fantasy shattered into reality.
Now, the question Žižek seeks to answer is this:
Why in the middle of well-being, are we haunted by nightmarish visions and catastrophes?
The answer is that in the middle of a state of "feeling good," we look for catastrophes because it is a way of resisting reality. This perspective aligns with a postmodern view that suggests 'reality' is a symbolic creation that we misinterpret as an independent and concrete entity.
However, Žižek argues that, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, there is an opposite view. Instead of mistaking reality for fiction, we should avoid mistaking fiction for reality. In this way, some aspects of our experiences that we consider fictional might actually contain actual reality, but we handle or process these aspects by transforming them into fiction.
To put it another way, in our daily lives, we are submerged in a reality that is sustained by fantasies, which is our ideology; these fantasies contribute to our constructed perception of reality. This immersion is disrupted by symptoms that act as witnesses to the fact that another suppressed level of our mind resists total immersion in this fantasy.
As a result, we always "traverse the fantasy," meaning that we identify with the fantasy, particularly the one that generates excess and resists our complete immersion in the constructed reality.
All this means that the return of the Real is not simply a return to an authentic existence, but rather a traumatic and excessive experience that is difficult to integrate into our perception of reality.
In other words, the Real itself is often seen as an uncomfortable, terrifying apparition. However, from a psychoanalytic perspective, this discomfort might arise from the fact that some elements of reality need to be fictionalized to be comprehended and accepted.
In a nutshell, it is a nightmare because it is very real, and fictionalizing the Real allows us to better understand and cope with certain aspects of true reality.
Now, we can clearly see how fictionalizing reality is a coping mechanism. Žižek argues that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, forgetting historical traumas is not straightforward. Traumas that individuals are not ready or able to remember continue to haunt them more powerfully. This paradoxically means that in order to genuinely forget an event, we must first find the strength to remember it properly.
In other words, the opposite of existence is not nonexistence, but insistence. What doesn't exist still causes influence, persistently striving for existence.
Furthermore, Žižek uses Benjamin's perspective to demonstrate how modern revolutionary goals might be regarded as revisiting or even redeeming previous failed attempts at revolution. This suggests current actions are not isolated events; they contain traces of past struggles and unresolved goals, giving fresh life to previously unsuccessful attempts.
These are known as symptoms, and they are just defenses that insist and persist in historical experience.
Moving forward, Žižek delves into the concept of the symbolic hidden rules within systems of power. He illustrates this by examining the ways in which institutions, such as the Catholic Church and even the Nazi regime, operate with hidden laws.
The first example is the Catholic Church and the establishment of the Opus Dei, an organization that functions under an unwritten set of norms characterized by unquestioning loyalty to the Pope and a commitment to promoting the Church's interests. This group embodies a form of authority that defies conventional legality, operating by its own standards.
For instance, Žižek explores the Church's handling of the widespread sexual abuse cases involving priests. He claims that these incidents show a counterculture within the Church that operates under its own set of hidden standards and overlaps with the Opus Dei level. The Church's refusal to cooperate with legal authorities and insistence on treating the situation as an internal matter demonstrate the operation of hidden principles that prioritize the institution's preservation.
Moreover, another example of the same concept is Žižek’s analysis of the Nazi regime. He focuses particularly on a speech by Hitler where he openly addresses the mass killing of Jews as a proud historical act. This acknowledgement of brutality demonstrates how the Nazis manipulated power through a similar dynamic of hidden rules, acknowledging and even celebrating the "dirty work" done for the advancement of their ideology.
Finally, all these examples illustrate a broader point about the dynamics of power and ideology. Žižek contrasts the reactionary and progressive approaches to confronting the Real, which represents the underlying truth or antagonism that disrupts the symbolic order.
The "reactionary" approach involves embracing the hidden and darker aspects of the Law, power, and authority. This means accepting the less favorable sides of these forces. On the other hand, the "progressive" approach revolves around confronting the true reality, including the antagonisms that are often overlooked by ideologies.
Žižek challenges the usual understanding of the "Real." He argues that it's not merely a frightening truth concealed beneath symbolic layers. Instead, he argues that the Real includes symbolic creations or specters that shape how we perceive the world around us.
For instance, consider Nazi ideology. They used the notion of the Jews as a specter, a symbolic representation of a hidden conflict. By portraying the Jews as a perceived threat, the Nazis rallied society together against this common enemy. This helped them create a sense of unity, even though it was based on an underlying conflict or antagonism.
This is where we can introduce the concept of "Homo sacer," which represents the distinction between individuals who are part of the legal system and those who are not. It is a Roman law figure that was used to describe a person who was outlawed and may be killed by anybody, but must not be sacrificed in a ritual of faith. In other words, it represents the line between humanity and the symbolic order. The border between who is protected by the law and who is vulnerable without legal repercussions.
Terrorism: The West and the Clash of Civilizations
When September 11 happened, people started thinking a lot about Islam and Arab culture, trying to understand it better and desiring to see Islam as a great spiritual force rather than as a threat.
However, Žižek argues that trying to understand these cultures doesn't really help us understand why those attacks happened. Additionally, Islam has historically been more tolerant towards other religions than Christianity, which can help us to change the modern perspective of Islam as inherently intolerant towards other cultures.
With this in mind, Žižek claims that the response to the September 11 attacks, like the US attacking Afghanistan, is a kind of action that might even be more about showing off power than actually making things better.
Because, why would it be a good idea to fight against a country that nobody cares about and that barely has anything to be destroyed?
Moreover, Žižek shows how wars were fought with soldiers on the ground before, but now they are transcending to something different. People can control attacks from computers far away, like if they were in a video game. And this is similar to how terrorists act, in hidden and secret ways. This creates a new notion of an "invisible" war, where attacks could be anything but actual weapon attacks.
This new kind of war changes how we understand conflict, and makes us enter into a state of paranoia, where it's hard to identify who the real enemy is. This can lead to conspiracy theories and widespread fear among people.
Moving forward, Žižek talks about this clash of civilizations from a philosophical perspective by referencing Nietzsche and Hegel. He argues that this clash is between passive nihilism, represented by consumerist societies in the West, and active nihilism, manifested in radical movements. This distinction is used to shed light on the different motivations and sacrifices made by these groups.
For example, in the West, we are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in daily pleasures, while the Muslims are willing to risk all, fighting even to the point of self-destruction.
One example is the traumatic impacts that we see in the West. For instance, when the stock exchange was closed for four days and then reopened the next Monday, it was viewed as the ultimate proof that everything was back to normal.
This shows how, despite the perception of the West as exploitative masters, they are, above all, servants. They cling to pleasures to the point of being unable to risk their own lives.
Now, in the months following the attacks, something very interesting happened. A unique phenomenon between a traumatic event and a symbolic impact arose. Americans experienced pride more than ever, but Žižek emphasizes that there was nothing “innocent” about this reaction.
According to him, what actually happened was ideological interference, in which they fully assumed the symbolic mandate that comes after a big trauma. Because, after a painful event like 9/11, what could be more natural than seeking comfort in the innocence of a strong ideological identification like nationalism?
To put it another way, the United States of America was given the opportunity to reflect on the kind of world they were living in and the one they had built as the world's most powerful country.
Nonetheless, they chose to reaffirm their traditional ideological beliefs, and have absolutely no feelings of responsibility or guilt towards the impoverished Third World that was forced to participate in global capitalism.
This leads to the conclusion that Žižek invites us to reflect the political dimension of terrorism and understand that treating terrorists as mere criminals misses the larger political context. He argues that terrorism is a phenomenon within the capitalist universe and that the struggle against it is not necessarily the true struggle.
Happiness After September 11
In psychoanalysis the betrayal of desire is called happiness. Žižek argues that happiness is a complex and somewhat elusive state of being, often characterized by a balance of certain conditions.
To illustrate this, he uses the context of life in Czechoslovakia during the late 1970s and 1980s.
During this time he noted that people's basic material needs were met, but not in excess. Sometimes shortages happened, which actually helped people appreciate the availability of goods when they were present.
Furthermore, the ruling party was held responsible for anything that went wrong, which allowed people to avoid feeling personally responsible for problems. And last, people were allowed to dream about and occasionally visit a more consumer-focused society, which was not too far away but distant enough to maintain the sense of a better life.
But nowadays this balance has been disturbed. By what exactly? By nothing more than desire. This emotion drives people to seek more than what they have, which eventually leads to changes in the full system they live in. As a result, many people are actually less happy.
Happiness then is just a category of mere Being, and, as such, it is confused, indeterminate and inconsistent.
In addition to this, Žižek claims that the concept of "happily ever after" is a Christianized version of the pagan concept of "the goal of life is to be happy." He goes on to say that people like Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, have had a lot of success preaching the gospel of happiness all over the world, and that it's no surprise that he got the most response in the United States, where the ultimate empire of the "pursuit" of happiness resides.
Now, if we delve deeper, the relationship between happiness and the pleasure principle becomes apparent. The pleasure principle, a foundational concept in psychoanalysis, says that individuals instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain.
However, happiness is vulnerable to disruption when there is an insistence on something more than the natural pursuit of pleasure.
This means that true happiness is connected to the subject's inability or reluctance to fully confront the consequences of these deeper desires. In other words, people suppress certain desires because they fear the outcomes or implications. This avoidance can create a sense of inconsistency in their desires.
To illustrate this concept, consider scenarios in daily life. People regularly find themselves "pretending" that they desire things they don't really desire. This desire mask operates as a defense mechanism, protecting individuals from future disappointment, and ironically, striving for these surface desires serves to lessen the potential pain of not getting what they truly desire.
This highlights an important truth: happiness it's not necessarily about fully understanding and embracing all our desires, but rather about existing in a state where desires, including those beyond mere pleasure, remain somewhat unresolved.
Moving forward, this is exactly what happens in political scenarios. According to Žižek, the Left, for example, continually insists on things that they know the capitalist system cannot provide. For example, full employment, the welfare state, and so forth. He claims that the issue is not that these demands cannot be met, but that individuals who make them do not truly want them to be realized.
This situation creates a state where people, politicians in this case, can continue to desire things that they do not really want, while at the same time, enjoy their current privileged position.
Now, another claim Žižek makes on happiness is that knowledge makes us unhappy, and I cannot agree more. We are all aware that the more we learn about something, the more we want to control and the more disappointed we get.
With this in mind, Jacques Lacan said that the attitude of human beings is that of “I do not want to know about it,” which contradicts the core curiosity in humans. This means that every new discovery humanity makes has to be bought by a painful struggle against our innate propensities. In short, too much knowledge can lead to complicated feelings and unexpected changes in how we see things.
However, Žižek argues that sometimes when we know someone we trust knows something, even if we do not know what they know, it can bring a sense of discomfort.
For instance, there is an example of a genetic disease in a family. One member of this family decides to take the test to know if they have the disease or not. After reflecting, they decide to take the test and authorize another person they trust to test them and not tell them the result.
This would result in an unexpected death if the result was positive. The problem with this, Žižek argues, is that the person knows that the other person knows the truth about the illness, and this changes the way they see the situation, since it creates further anguish because you know that they know something important about you.
This helps us understand a perplexing part of knowing things and how it is more than just learning new information. When you discover that someone else knew something important but kept it a secret, the entire scenario changes. This can be even more frightening than merely knowing the new information.
Moving forward, Žižek redirects this to society: Would the ultimate fantasy of happiness be that of an institution doing things to us without our knowledge?
This connects to the topic of knowing the other knows. People would be unaware of what is going on behind the scenes if the institutions secretly know information about them and take dramatic steps based on that knowledge.
This shows how distrust and discomfort are compounded on a societal level in a totalitarian system. People would constantly be afraid that someone else knows things about them that they aren't aware of, and that their life could be manipulated without their knowledge or consent. This lack of transparency and control over their own life reflects the discomfort experienced when realizing someone holds important knowledge about them.
As a result, we can conclude that "blessed ignorance" can occasionally lead to a better sense of fulfillment or happiness.
On that note, Žižek makes the claim that in Hollywood we can really see some “blessed ignorance” in play. For instance, in movies like "The Land Before Time," which is a popular children's show by Steven Spielberg, there is a message of embracing diversity and differences among individuals.
In this message, Žižek argues that there is a comforting narrative that encourages people to focus on understanding each other's differences rather than trying to understand the potential conflicts or underlying issues that could arise from those differences.
Now, I should point out that Žižek can appear to be on either end of the spectrum at times. And that's because he rarely is. His job is to encourage us to consider both sides of the issue and to be more critical of how we think. In other words, he is urging us to recognize that this approach of embracing diversity may cause us to overlook a deeper reality – that there are antagonisms, conflicts, and tensions inherent in society.
Following this, another concept of happiness and ideology is mentioned. Žižek argues that in our post-ideological world, we often perform symbolic roles without fully embracing them or being conscious about them.
For instance, he uses the film "Shrek" to illustrate how ideology functions in popular culture. He points out that even though the film uses humorous elements, such as Fiona turning out to be an ugly ogre and a dragon turning out to be nice, it still transmits the same classic fairy tale story underneath. The film's creative twists and contemporary references serve to adapt the story for a "postmodern" period while retaining the same narrative.
According to Žižek, these types of stories hinder the formation of new narratives that challenge the present ideological framework. He claims that making fun of our beliefs while continuing to practice them is a form of subversion, because it actually just reinforces them.
Another critique he makes is how society links certain characteristics to concrete conclusions. For example, he argues that mass choreography, like parades, or strong discipline in general, are often labeled as having proto-Fascist characteristics.
However, Žižek stresses that we must understand that these performances aren't inherently fascist. Same goes for any kind of strong language that might remind someone of the hateful language used in anti-Semitic writings by the Nazis.
Furthermore, he points out that none of the "Proto-fascist" characteristics are inherently fascist, and that it all depends on whether or not we take into account the historical events that give rise to certain words or terms.
This means that if we look at Nazism from a standard analysis, that is, looking for the term's origins and influences, we will find elements that are "proto-Fascist" even before Nazism emerged. A Nietzschean genealogy, on the other hand, would see the rupture that led to the rise of Nazism as a unique historical event.
In this view, the elements themselves aren't inherently fascist; they become fascist through how they're put together. In other words, it's the labeling and articulation that make elements fascist.
What Žižek is doing here is warning us about the dangers of simplistically connecting certain elements or attitudes with fascism without analyzing the complexities of their origins and development. That holds true for any other term we might use to describe a scenario. Sometimes things appear to be something they are not.
Now, as we already saw, Žižek argues that the meaning of a concept isn't solely inherent within itself; rather, its significance depends on how it's used and connected to other ideas. This also applies to democracy, which is often regarded as a fundamental concept.
However, Žižek asks us to reconsider how we treat democracy. The concept in our modern world is often seen as a way to temporarily suppress social conflicts during elections. The social hierarchy is momentarily set aside, and the focus becomes the number of people who support a certain idea.
This leads to a temporary reduction of tension. However, Žižek gives some examples to show the issues that democracy gives to our societies. When people need to make decisions, they are often faced with choices where all options seem problematic.
For instance, during an election, people might choose a candidate despite doubts about their integrity, simply because they consider the alternative worse. This paradox shows that campaigns against corruption or issues within democracy often get co-opted by far-right populist movements.
To put it another way, democracy is just an illusion and we should be conscious of the inherent imperfection and vulnerability of it.
Finally, Žižek claims that unconventional ideas should be considered in order for real transformation to happen. We need risk and dramatic action without worrying about all the possible outcomes. Like Napoleon used to say: "On attaque et puis on verra," which translates to "we attack, and then we'll see." That is, when faced with uncertainty and complexity, taking an active step forward without knowing all of the implications can be the most effective way to bring about meaningful change.
This perspective on change has been captured in other cultures as well. In Russian, for example, there is the expression "awos or na awos," which translates as "on our luck." This notion expresses the feeling that when taking a risky and dramatic step, there is hope that things will turn out well despite the uncertainties, representing a combination of bold action and confidence in the future.
In conclusion, just as we are encouraged as individuals to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and think outside the box in order for meaningful change to happen, we should do the same as a society.
Because, in the end, if we want something different, something that really changes things for the better, we must take drastic steps into the unknown.
The Homo Sacer
Žižek claims that sometimes we get so caught up in certain beliefs or causes that we end up doing things that go against those very beliefs.
For example, let's say there are people who strongly oppose religion, thinking it's oppressive. They might start fighting against that religion to protect freedom.
However, in their fight against it, they might end up losing their own freedom because they become so focused on their cause. So, the irony is that their efforts to protect freedom lead to them sacrificing their own freedom.
This same scenario happened in the West when trying to fight against terrorism.
Furthermore, Žižek argues that something similar happens nowadays with subjectivity and individualism. People believe that instead of trying to change big things in the world, we should focus on changing ourselves in personal ways.
In other words, privacy itself becomes a totally objectivized and commodified sphere. From taking spiritual enlightenment, all the way to following the latest trends and engaging in yoga or body-building.
However, this approach has its problems. What we really need nowadays in order to break out of the constraints of this alienated commodification is to invent a new collectivity.
In other words, in order to have an intense and rewarding relationship in the private sphere, such as how a couple attempts to look into each other's eyes, forgetting about the world around them in order to make their bond stronger. The reality is that for this bond to become strong like that, they need a third point, a cause for which both are fighting, and in which they are both engaged.
We all know that common objectives and aspirations are essential in a relationship. Žižek argues that the same thing happens in society. Staying in the private sphere does not help in bringing about real transformation. By focusing just on ourselves, the social reality continues its course without some real understanding.
This means that for true fulfillment in any kind of relationship, including communities, we all need a third point to focus on.
To put it another way, the global subjectivity we experience today does not make objectivity go away, rather it makes subjectivity itself disappear while the social reality continues its course unattended.
Furthermore, Žižek says that in the West, there are a lot of books about disappearing completely and reinventing oneself, which reflect the Western focus on self-discovery and self-improvement. He then contrasts this with Zen Buddhism and how the philosophy aims to empty the mind and rejects the idea of a fixed "self,” or of finding oneself.
This suggests that Zen is more about emptying oneself and accepting that there is no inner truth to be found. It contrasts with the West in that there is no inner substance and no inner journey. Where the essence is pure faith, duty, and even community fidelity.
With this idea in mind, Žižek returns to the subject of risk. He stresses once more that true life involves going beyond survival and finding an excess, something worth risking one's life for.
To illustrate this, Žižek asks this question:
What if the suicide bomber on the point of blowing himself up was in a sense “more alive,” than the American soldier engaged in war in front of a computer screen hundreds of miles away? Isn't the ultimate aim of his compulsive ritual to prevent the “thing” from happening - this “thing” being the excess of life itself? Is it not the catastrophe he fears, the fact that something will really happen to him?
In other words, this shows that being truly alive involves a strong desire to live combined with a fearless attitude towards dying. That is, the fear of introducing a radical imbalance into the social structure. And the truth that we are truly alive only when we are willing to take a chance. This applies for everything, including politics.
Moving forward, Žižek touches on the topic of the Homo Sacer again, but this time explains it. As we already briefly explained, the concept refers to people who are alive but are not part of the political community.
Žižek uses several examples to show how this idea plays out in real life. One of these examples is some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, where they are not treated the same as regular citizens. They do not have the same rights or benefits. It is as though they're stuck in a sort of limbo, they are not technically criminals, but are also not fully integrated into society.
Moreover, Žižek's point is that this idea of Homo Sacer is becoming more relevant in today's world. The way conflicts and politics are unfolding is different now. Traditional wars between countries are happening less often. Instead, there are conflicts involving groups of people who don't fit completely into categories like soldiers or criminals. These conflicts challenge human rights and often lead to situations where some people are pushed to the sidelines.
This Homo Sacer dynamic becomes crucial in understanding the changing nature of politics and rights. It encourages us to look at the distinction between human rights that should extend to all individuals, even those on the margins of society, and the more particular rights of citizens within a defined political community.
However, Žižek goes a step further and provides a more extreme perspective. He suggests that maybe we all start in a position of exclusion, where our basic status is that of objects controlled by large political systems, or biopolitics, as he refers to it.
According to this perspective, the rights associated with citizenship are not basic rights but are given to us as a secondary gesture, slowly created by the very same political systems we are immersed in.
Now, Žižek delves deep into the background of the Homo Sacer, connecting it to thinkers such as Adorno and Foucault. In this context, Homo Sacer is an essential component to unlocking the complex relationship between human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, as well as something known as "biopower," which refers to the ways in which political authorities exert control over people's lives, bodies, and health for the benefit of society.
Moreover, returning to the main point, Homo Sacer invites us to consider whether our ideas of human rights and democracy sometimes mask the true nature of control mechanisms inherent in biopower.
Could these dynamics, represented by the horrific concentration camps of the previous century, be operating under the mask of democratic governance? Is our current desire for political freedom really a mask for the collapse of personal autonomy in a world ruled by late capitalism?
For example, consider today's society, where the line between politics and daily life appears to be blurring. Control and management of daily life are becoming increasingly important in this world, nearly to the point of being the primary focus. Totalitarian phenomena are not simply deviations from the ideals of the Enlightenment; they hint to the "truth" behind these principles.
Could these seemingly opposing ideas be founded in the same problem, namely the suppression or exclusion of something very troubling?
To understand this, imagine a world in which we think we have freedom but we are actually controlled by a hidden system. The film "The Matrix'' is an excellent example of this. A world in which humans are trapped in a simulated reality, supplying energy to the Matrix against their will.
But why does this mechanism need our energy? Why didn’t it get the energy from elsewhere?
The answer is that it isn’t just about power; it's about desire. Just like how humans desire things, this system, metaphorically depicted as the "Matrix," craves something too. It needs constant human jouissance. And when we wake up to the “reality” we are actually just realizing the fantasy that sustains it - our own selves.
Now, on the topic of society structures. Some thinkers, like Agamben, challenge us to study the very concept of democracy. They say that Agamben's concept of Homo Sacer shouldn't just be part of a project to redefine exclusion. Instead, it should open up the conversation so that even excluded voices can be heard in public discourse.
This idea aligns with Judith Butler's reading of Antigone, a character from Greek mythology, who stands for those without a clear social status, so we can rethink the boundaries that define inclusion and exclusion.
Moreover, Žižek argues that Hegel and Lacan get into this context. They analyze conflict and how it relates to the structure of society. Hegel sees a split between different elements like state and family, while Lacan emphasizes how certain figures, like Antigone, represent the limits of established norms.
However, Judith Butler, doesn't fully side with either of these views. They argue that Antigone isn't just a radical outsider but also someone aiming to reshape the norms from within. This shift isn't purely theoretical; it's about challenging how society is organized and seeking change in specific conditions.
In other words, Butler's key point here is that we shouldn't simply see these conflicts as black and white choices. Instead, we should consider the possibility of reimagining societal norms, especially when it comes to defining roles, boundaries, and even the rules that shape how we live together.
Now, Žižek really emphasizes the concept of the Homo Sacer and its exclusions, and gives us several examples. Another exploration of this concept comes with how it relates to torture. Especially after the attack of 9/11.
With this in mind, he mentions one discussion in an article by Jonathan Alter, titled "Time to Think about Torture," which explores the idea that extreme circumstances might need extreme measures, even if those measures seem ethically unacceptable. Žižek asks questions of the logic of using the urgency of a situation to justify torture, pointing out the risk of this justification leading to further unethical practices.
Interestingly, Žižek argues that simply bringing up torture as a legitimate issue for debate is more detrimental than openly promoting it.
This is because bringing up the subject of torture softly changes the boundaries of what is acceptable. Making the ethical implications of normalizing torture for short-term gains a concern, because it eventually opens the way to broader acceptance of torture in other contexts, eroding human rights.
Furthermore, Žižek highlights how “states of emergency” can alter human rights or basic needs in the name of national security. This happened after 9/11 and he argues the paradoxical nature of how a state of war can be declared while daily life continues, blurring the distinction between states of war and peace. This perspective introduces a new paradigm where a state of peace itself can coexist with a state of emergency.
With this in mind, Žižek explores the interplay between two types of emergencies: the contemporary "liberal-totalitarian emergency of the war on terrorism" and the authentic revolutionary state of emergency that has historical roots.
He highlights how the declaration of a state of emergency often serves as a desperate strategy by state institutions to counteract genuine unrest and the return to a regular and normal life. This is similar to other times in history when conservative regimes declared states of emergency to supress rebellions, which ironically intensified the true emergency they were attempting to address.
Moving forward, Žižek introduces the notion of the "enemy" and its construction through imagination and conceptualization. He argues that enemy recognition is performative, and requires the construction of concrete features that render the enemy recognizable and worthy of struggle.
This explains why the Jews were the enemy by excellence. Politics needs an image of a recognizable enemy in order to sustain itself and provide a focal point. In short, enemy recognition is always a performative procedure that constructs the enemy's “true face.” This connects with the idea of the third focal point that we discussed above.
To illustrate this, after the collapse of the Communist states there was a lack of a clear enemy figure, leading to confusion and inefficiency. However, this lack of a central image changed with the events of September 11, which allowed the construction of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the new enemy figures, and this same phenomenon continues to build its way up to other faces with time.
Finally, Žižek concludes by discussing the metaphorical universalization of the term "terror." He argues that there are instances where the notion of terror is elevated to symbolize broader societal issues. He points out how campaigns linked drug use to supporting terrorism, exemplifying how "terror" becomes a hidden universal equivalent for various social problems.
After this, Žižek talks about Palestinians and how they are often treated as Homo sacers by the Israeli people, yet at the same time as neighbors.
I'm skipping this last chapter because it mostly discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provides critical deep insights into its underlying complexities and obstacles.
But briefly, Žižek mentions the pervasive reality of daily humiliations that the Palestinians endured, and how they were often treated like disobedient children who require discipline and punishment to be brought back to a normal life. He further points out how they were daily being attacked while simultaneously being expected to crack down on their attacks.
In other words, the Palestinian people were humiliated on a daily basis by being attacked and then being ask to peacefully accept these attacks, because if they defend themselves and fight back, they are labeled as terrorists. He argues that this contradiction weakened their authority and ability to keep peace because they were expected to endure attacks while also silencing those behind them.
In short, if we want to delve more into Žižek's understanding of this topic, we can turn to the book's last chapter for some insightful analysis. But, overall, there isn’t anything else to cover from there.
To conclude, I believe this book provides an in-depth analysis of historical events and allows us to gain a deeper understanding of them. Žižek's psychoanalytic background gives him a unique perspective on human psychology and its symbolic consequences for reality. Humanity frequently acts in ways that appear to be something we can read as concrete, but are actually manifestations of repressed desires. It's fascinating to see how concepts from human psychology may be applied to large societal structures and how this eventually translates to the construction of our “objective” reality.
I've always believed that it is a healthy practice to look at things from different perspectives and try to figure out why they are the way they are. Welcome to the desert of the Real.
Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso: First Edition.
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