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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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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