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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism