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Slavoj Žižek: what is an authentic political event?

Julian Assange and his collaborators enacted a true and authentic political event. But what do we mean by that, and how does it influence our actions?

In December 2013 I visited Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy located just behind the Harrods store in London. It was a rather depressing experience, in spite of the kindness of the embassy personnel. The embassy is a six-room apartment with no garden attached, so that Assange cannot even take a daily walk in fresh air. He also cannot step out of the apartment into the house's main corridor – policemen are waiting for him there. A dozen or so of them are all the time around the house and in some of the surrounding buildings, one even beneath a tiny backyard toilet window, in case Assange will try to escape through that hole in the wall. The apartment is bugged from above and below, its internet link is suspiciously slow... so how come the British state decided to employ around 50 people full time to guard Assange and control him under the legal pretence that he refuses to go to Sweden and be questioned about a minor sexual misconduct (there are no charges against him!)? One is tempted to become a Thatcherite and ask: where is austerity politics here? If a nobody like myself were to be wanted by the Swedish police for a similar interrogation, would the UK also employ 50 people to guard me? The serious question is here: where does such a ridiculously excessive desire for revenge stem from? What did Assange, his colleagues, and whistle-blowing sources do to deserve this?

Jacques Lacan proposed as the axiom of the ethics of psychoanalysis: “Do not compromise your desire.”  Is this axiom also not an accurate designation of the whistleblowers’ acts? In spite of all the risks their activity involves, they are not ready to compromise on it – on what? This brings us to the notion of event: Assange and his collaborators enacted a true and authentic political event – this is what one can easily understand the violent reaction of the authorities. Assange and colleagues are often accused of being traitors, but they are something much worse (in the eyes of the authorities) – to quote Alenka Zupančič:

Even if Snowden were to sell his informations discreetly to another intelligence service, this act would still count as part of the ‘patriotic games’, and if needed he would have been liquidated as a ‘traitor’. However, in Snowden's case, we are dealing with something entirely different. We are dealing with a gesture which questions the very logic, the very status quo, which for quite some time serves as the only foundation of all ‘Western’ (non)politics. With a gesture which as it were risks everything, with no consideration of profit and without its own stakes: it takes the risk because it is based on the conclusion that what is going on is simply wrong. Snowden didn't propose any alternative. Snowden, or, rather, the logic of his gesture, like, say, before him, the gesture of Bradley Manning – is the alternative.

This breakthrough of Wikileaks is nicely encapsulated by Assange's ironic self-designation as a “spy for the people”: “spying for the people” is not a direct negation of spying (which would rather be acting as a double agent, selling our secrets to the enemy) but its self-negation, ie, it undermines the very universal principle of spying, the principle of secrecy, since its goal is to make secrets public. It thus functions in a way similar to how the Marxian “dictatorship of the proletariat” was supposed to function (but rarely ever did, of course): as an imminent self-negation of the very principle of dictatorship. To those who continue to paint the scarecrow of Communism, we should answer: what Wikileaks is doing is the practice of Communism. Wikileaks simply enacts the commons of informations.

In the struggle of ideas, the rise of bourgeois modernity was exemplified by the French Encyclopedia, a gigantic venture of presenting in a systematic way to broad public all available knowledge – the addressee of this knowledge was not the state but the public as such. It may seem that Wikipedia already is today’s encyclopedia, but something is missing from it: the knowledge which is ignored by and repressed from the public space, repressed because it concerns precisely the way state mechanisms and agencies control and regulate us all. The goal of Wikileaks should be to make this knowledge available to all of us with a simple click. Assange effectively is today’s d’Alembert, the organiser of this new encyclopedia, the true people’s encyclopedia for the twenty-first century. It is crucial that this new encyclopedia acquires an independent international base, so that the humiliating game of playing one big state against another (like Snowden having to look for protection in Russia) will be constrained to a minimum. Our axiom should be that Snowden and Pussy Riot are part of the same struggle – which struggle?

Our informational commons recently emerged as one of the key domains of the class struggle in two of its aspects, economical in the narrow sense and socio-political. On the one hand, new digital media confront us with the impasse of “intellectual property”. The World Wide Web seems to be in its nature Communist, tending towards free flow of data – CDs and DVDs are gradually disappearing, millions are simply downloading music and videos, mostly for free. This is why the business establishment is engaged in a desperate struggle to impose the form of private property on this flow. On the other hand, digital media (especially with the almost universal access to the web and cell phones) opened up new ways for the millions of ordinary people to establish a network and coordinate their collective activities, while also offering state agencies and private companies unheard-of possibilities of tracking down our public and private acts. It is into this struggle that Wikileaks intervened in such an explosive way.

In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T S Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what Wikileaks did: its activity is based on the insight that the only way to keep our democracy alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main institutional corpse of state apparatuses and mechanisms. In doing this, Wikileaks did something unheard of, redefining the coordinates of what counts as possible or admissible in the public space. I wrote a book on the notion of “event” precisely to create the space for the proper understanding of phenomena like Wikileaks, when a political act does not only violate the predominant rules but creates its own new rules and imposes new ethical standards. What we hitherto took as self-evident – the right of the state to monitor and control us – is now seen as deeply problematic; what we hitherto perceived as something criminal, an act of betrayal – disclosing  state secrets – now appears as a heroic ethical act.    

From this brief description, we can already see how an event is located within a narrative field. Our historical experience is formed as a narrative, ie, we always locate real occurrences within a narrative which makes them part of a meaningful storyline. Problems arise when an unexpected shattering turn of events – an outbreak of war, a deep economic crisis – can no longer be included into a consistent narrative. At that point, it all depends on how this catastrophic turn will be symbolised, on what ideological interpretation or story will impose itself and determine the general perception of the crisis. When the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for ideological competition – for example, in Germany in the late 1920s, Hitler won in the competition for the narrative which will explain to Germans the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar republic and the way out of it (his plot was the Jewish plot); in France in 1940 it was Marshal Petain’s narrative which won in explaining the reasons for the French defeat. And the same goes for the ongoing financial and economic crisis: which narrative will prevail? Will it be the neoliberal one, blaming the strong state, the conservative one, bemoaning the loss of traditional values, or the radical Leftist one, advocating radical emancipatory politics? The event is the successful imposition of a new narrative which makes a historical situation readable again to those caught in it.

The important lesson of this example of Fascism is that there are also what one could call negative events. Imagine a society which fully integrated into its ethical substance the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, democratic rights, the duty of a society to provide for education and basic healthcare of all its members, and which rendered racism or sexism simply inacceptable and ridiculous – there is no need even to argue against, say, racism, since anyone who openly advocates racism is immediately perceived as a weird eccentric who cannot be taken seriously, etc. But then, step by step, these achievements are undone, one can openly propagate racism, advocate torture, etc. Did Hitler not do something like this? Was his message to the German people not “Yes, we can…” – kill the Jews, squash democracy, act in a racist way, attack other nations? And are we not witnessing signs of a similar process today? In the middle of 2013, two public protests were announced in Croatia, a country in deep economic crisis, with high unemployment rate and a deep sense of despair among the population: trade unions tried to organise a rally in support of workers’ rights, while right wing nationalists started a protest movement against the use of cyrillic letters on public buildings in cities with Serb minority. The first initiative brought to a big square in Zagreb a couple of hundred people, the second one succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands, the same as with a fundamentalist movement against gay marriages. Croatia is far from being an exception in this regard: from Balkan to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from central Africa to India, a new Dark Age is coming, with ethnic and religious passions exploding, and the Enlightenment values receding. These passions were lurking in dark all the time, but what is new now is the outright shamelessness of their display.

This ongoing process of undermining the very fundamentals of our emancipatory achievements takes place at different levels. The debate about water boarding being torture or not should be dropped as an obvious nonsense: why, if not by causing pain and fear of death, does boarding make hardened terror suspects talk? As to the replacement of the word “torture” by “enhanced interrogation technique,” one should note that we are dealing here with an extension of the Politically Correct logic: in exactly the same way that “disabled” becomes “physically challenged,” “torture” becomes “enhanced interrogation technique” (and, why not, “rape” could become “enhanced seduction technique”). One should insist on this parallel between torture and rape: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here: I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it – and the same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is “dogmatically” rejected as repulsive, without any need for argumentation. So what about the “realist” argument: torture was always going on, if anything even more in the (near) past, so is it not better to at least talking publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem: if torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: to normalise it, ie, to lower our ethical standards.

And it is crucial to see this ethical regression as the obverse of the explosive development of global capitalism – they are the two sides of the same coin. So where do we stand today? Maybe, we don’t even stand but just lean forward in a very specific way. Close to the children’s museum in Seoul, there is a weird statue which, to the non-initiated, cannot but appear as staging a scene of extreme obscenity: it looks as if a group of young boys leaning forward behind each other are sticking their heads into the rectum of the boy in front, while the first boy is standing in front of the queue and has the head of the first boy who is leaning pushed into his crotch. When we inquire, we are informed that the statue is simply the staging of malttukbakgi, a fun game that both Korean girls and boys play till high school. There are two teams; team A has one person stand up against the wall and the rest of the team have all their heads up in someone else’s butt/crotch area to form what looks like a large horse. Team B then jumps up onto the human horse one by one, each jumping with as much force as possible; if anyone from any team falls to the floor, that team loses.

Is this statue not a perfect metaphor for us, common people, for our predicament in today’s global capitalism? Our view is constrained to what we can see with our head stuck into the ass of a guy just in front of us, and our idea of who is our Master is the guy in front whose penis and/or balls the first guy in the row appears to be licking – but the real Master, invisible to us, is the one freely jumping on our back, the autonomous movement of the Capital.

How, then, are we to proceed in such a messy situation? There is a wonderful common Scottish verb tartle which designates the awkward moment when a speaker temporarily forgets someone's name (usually the name of his/her partner in a conversation) and the verb is used to avoid that occasional embarrassment, as in: “Sorry, I tartled there for a moment!” Were we all not tartling in the last decades, forgetting the name “Communism” to designate the ultimate horizon of our emancipatory struggles? The time has come to fully remember this word – its full public rehabilitation would have been in itself an authentic political event.

Event by Slavoj Žižek, the second in Penguin’s Philosophy in Transit series by leading philosophers, is out now in paperback, priced £8.99

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times