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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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