Slavoj Žižek on The Act of Killing and the modern trend of “privatising public space”

The documentary film The Act of Killing asks Indonesian death-squad leaders to re-enact their crimes for the camera. They boast openly about their massacres as we observe the real effects of living a fiction.

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The documentary The Act of Killing, which premiered in 2012, provides a unique and deeply disturbing insight into the ethical deadlock of global capitalism. The film – directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and shot in Medan, Indonesia – reports on a case of obscenity that reaches the extreme: Anwar Congo and his friends are now respected politicians but they used to be gangsters and death squad leaders who in 1966 played a leading role in the killing of as many as 2.5 million alleged communist sympathisers, mostly ethnic Chinese. The Act of Killing is about “killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built”. After their victory, their terrible acts were not relegated to the status of the “dirty secret”; on the contrary, Anwar and his friends boast openly about the details of their massacres (the way to strangle a victim with a wire, the way to cut a throat, how to rape a woman pleasurably . . .).

In October 2007, Indonesian state TV produced a talk show celebrating these men; in the middle of the show, after Anwar says that their killings were inspired by gangster movies, the beaming moderator turned to the cameras and said: “Amazing! Let’s give Anwar Congo a round of applause!” When she asked Anwar if he feared the revenge of the victims’ relatives, he answered: “They can’t. When they raise their heads, we wipe them out!” His henchman added: “We’ll exterminate them all!” and the audience exploded into exuberant cheers . . . one has to see this to believe it’s possible.

The film is, in a way, a documentary about the real effects of living a fiction. According to the film’s makers: “To explore the killers’ astounding boastfulness, and to test the limits of their pride, we began with documentary portraiture and simple re-enactments of the massacres. But when we realised what kind of movie Anwar and his friends really wanted to make about the genocide, the reenactments became more elaborate. And so we offered Anwar and his friends the opportunity to dramatise the killings using film genres of their choice (western, gangster, musical). That is, we gave them the chance to script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people.”

Did they reach the limits of the killers’ “pride”? They barely touched it when they proposed to Anwar that he should play the victim of his tortures in a re-enactment; when a wire is placed around his neck, he interrupts the performance and says, “Forgive me for everything I’ve done.” But this does not lead to a deeper crisis of conscience – his heroic pride immediately takes over again. The protective screen that prevented a deeper moral crisis was the cinematic screen: as in their real killings and torture, the men experienced their role play as a re-enactment of cinematic models: they experienced reality itself as a fiction. During their massacres, the men, all admirers of Hollywood (they started their careers as controllers of the black market in cinema tickets), imitated Hollywood gangsters, cowboys and even a musical dancer.

Here the “big other” enters: what kind of society publicly celebrates a monstrous orgy of torture and killing decades after it took place, not by justifying it as an extraordinary, necessary crime for the public good but as an ordinary, acceptable pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is the easy one of putting the blame on either Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalisation which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.

However, the status of the “big other” deserves a closer analysis – let us compare The Act of Killing to an incident that drew a lot of attention in the US some decades ago: a woman was beaten and slowly killed in the courtyard of a big apartment block in Brooklyn, New York; more than 70 witnesses saw what was going on from their windows but not one called the police. Why? As the investigation established, the most prevalent excuse by far was that each witness thought someone else already had or surely would.

Does this mean that, through the gradual dissolution of our ethical substance, we are simply regressing to individualist egotism? Things are much more complex. We often hear that our ecological crisis is the result of our short-term egotism: obsessed with immediate pleasures and wealth, we forgot about the common good. However, it is here that Walter Benjamin’s notion of capitalism as religion becomes crucial: a true capitalist is not a hedonist egotist; he is, on the contrary, fanatically devoted to his task of multiplying his wealth, ready to neglect his health and happiness, not to mention the prosperity of his family and the well-being of environment, for it. There is thus no need to evoke some high-ground moralism and trash capitalist egotism. To put it in the terms of Alain Badiou: the subjectivity of capitalism is not that of the “human animal” but rather a call to subordinate egotism to the self-reproduction of the capital.

In other words, self-interested egotism is not the brutal fact of our societies but its ideology – the ideology articulated in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit under the name of “the spiritual kingdom of animals” – his phrase for the modern civil society in which human animals are caught in self-interested interaction. This principle makes possible civil society where autonomous individuals associate with each other through the institutions of free-market economy in order to satisfy their private needs. The dialectical tension emerges when we become aware that the more individuals act egotistically, the more they contribute to the common wealth. The paradox is that when individuals want to sacrifice their narrow private interests and directly work for the common good, it is the common good that suffers.

Hegel determined this “contradiction” along the lines of the tension between the “animal” and the “spiritual”: the universal spiritual substance, the “work of all and everyone”, emerges as the result of the “mechanical” interaction of individuals. What this means is that the very “animality” of the self-interested “human animal” (the individual participating in the complex network of civil society) is the result of the long historical transformation of medieval hierarchic society into modern bourgeois society. It is the very fulfilment of the principle of subjectivity – the radical opposite of animality – which brings about the reversal of subjectivity into animality.

Traces of this shift can be detected everywhere today, especially in the fast-developing Asian countries where capitalism exerts a most brutal impact. Bertolt Brecht’s play The Exception and the Rule tells the story of a rich merchant who, with his porter (“coolie”), crosses the fictional Chinese Yahi Desert to close an oil deal. When the two get lost and their water supplies are running low, the merchant mistakenly shoots the coolie, thinking he was being attacked, when the coolie was actually offering him some water. Later, in a court, the merchant is acquitted: the judge concludes that the merchant had a right to fear a potential threat from the coolie, so he was justified in killing him in self-defence. Since the two men belong to different classes, the merchant had every reason to expect hatred and aggression from the coolie – this is the rule, while the coolie’s kindness was the exception.

Is this story yet another of Brecht’s ridiculous Marxist simplifications? No, judging from the report from today’s real China:

In Nanjing, half a decade ago, an elderly woman fell while getting on a bus . . . the 65-year-old woman broke her hip. At the scene, a young man came to her aid; let us call him Peng Yu, for that is his name. Peng Yu gave the elderly woman 200RMB (at that time enough to buy 300 bus tickets) and took her to the hospital. Then, he continued to stay with her until the family arrived. The family sued the young man for 136,419 RMB. Indeed, the Nanjing Gulou District Court found the young man to be guilty and ordered him to pay 45,876 RMB. The court reasoned, ‘according to common sense’, that because Peng Yu was the first off the bus, in all probability he had knocked over the elderly woman. Further, he actually had admitted his guilt, the court reasoned, by staying with the elderly woman at the hospital. It being the case that a normal person would not be as kind as Peng Yu claimed he was.

Is this incident not exactly parallel to Brecht’s story? Peng Yu helped the old lady out of simple compassion, but it was interpreted by the court as a proof of Peng Yu’s guilt. Is this a ridiculous exception? No, according to the People’s Daily (the government newspaper) which, in an online opinion poll, asked a large sample of young people what they would do if they were to see a fallen elderly person: “87 per cent of young people would not help . . . People will only help when a camera was present.” The reluctance to help signals a change in the status of public space. Even in a public space, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with other people. In order to count as public, the space has to be covered by security cameras.

Another sign of this change can be found in the recent trend of public sex in hardcore porn. There are more and more films which show a couple (or more) engaged in erotic games up to full copulation in a heavily frequented public space (a beach, a tram or train, at a bus or railway station). The majority of passers by (pretend to) ignore the scene – a minority throw a discreet glance at the couple, even fewer make a sarcastic obscene remark. Again, it is as if the copulating couple remained in a private space, so that we should not be concerned by their intimacies. This brings us back to Hegel’s “spiritual animal kingdom” – that is to say, who behaves like this, passing by the dying or copulating in blessed igorance? Animals, of course. The animality with which we are dealing here – the ruthless egotism of each of the individuals pursuing his or her private interest – is the paradoxical result of the most complex network of social relations (market exchange, social mediation of production). That individuals are blinded to this network points towards its ideal (“spiritual”) character: in the civil society structured by market, abstraction rules more than ever.

It is often said that today, with our exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this: it is the public space proper that is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his or her naked images or intimate data is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others. The same goes for Anwar and his colleagues in The Act of Killing: they are privatising the public space in a sense that is far more threatening than economic privatisation.

“The Act of Killing” is out now (certificate 15)

A still from Joseph Oppenheimer's disturbing "The Act of Killing".

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge