Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Discussion)

This is a collection of five essays by European philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, regarding the US and Europe after the 9-11 attacks. The essays are written in the way many philosophy books are written–very abstract/conceptual language that is not well-organized. (The book says five “essays,” but they almost seem like thoughts written down in a stream-of-consciousness style; there does not seem to be much editing in terms of the overall organization of each essay.) This, plus the fact that he makes a lot of references to concepts that I am unfamiliar with, make it hard for me to summarize. But here is one of the few quotes I understood and liked, and it seems to be a major theme:

“We do not know the consequences this event (9-11) wil have for the economy, ideology, politics and war, but one thing is certain: the USA, which, until now, perceived itself as an island exempt from this kind of , witnessing it only from safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will the Americans decide to fortify their ‘sphere’ further, or to risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in–even strengthen the deeply immoral attitude of ‘Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen to here!’, leading to more aggressivity towards the threatening Outside–in short: to a paranoic acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside world, accepting its arrival in the Real world, making the long-overdue move from ‘A thing like that shouldn’t happen here!’ to ‘A thing like this shouldn’t happen anywhere!’. That is the true lesson of hte attacks: the only way to ensure that it will not happen here again is to prevent it happening anywhere else. In short, America sould learn humbly to accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarting retaliation–what we are gettinginsated is the forceful reassertion of the exceptional role of the USA as a global policeman, as if what causes resentment against the USA is not its excess of power, its lack of it.”

–Slavoj Zizek, p. 59

Chris,

You better read this because I have a lot of questions. I’m not familiar with Lacan at all, and my knowledge of Freud is minimal at best. I’m also not clear on the term, Homo Sacer. I understand this to mean category of a person where the unconditional laws of man (golden rule, etc.) do not apply, at the same time civil laws can apply to the person. Does that sound right to you?

17 Responses to “Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Discussion)”


  1. Reid

    http://www.cosmos.ne.jp/~miyagawa/nagocnet/data/zizek.html

    Here’s an interview with Zizek, where he makes some comments about Chomsky.

  2. kevin

    A curious context to the above is the media play this week around Reaganís death. Almost like the effect of 9/11, it feels like the levity of reverence enbalms and preserves the aura and myth around his presidency to make it even more difficult to dismantle the self-destructive myths of conservative, nationalistic rule to popular America.

    My bleak view is that the US will never gain the discipline to detach from its self-absorbedness to ìfinally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside worldî in order to reengage the rest of the world in a just and responsible manner. Being the trained actor of the ìfantasmatic screenî he was, I think Reagan began an era of sales presidents willing to sell our citizens ìa simple, happy lieî over a difficult truth, & sell style over content. (like trickle-down economics, ìsupporting my best interest is in your best interest.î ) I wouldnít say that it is primarily a Republican fault, tho. I think the isolation of America spoken about above that comes from being self-absorbed was carried through both the ìbig businessî excesses on the Right in the 80ís, and the dot.com excesses of the Left in the 90ís ( which set us up for a harsh wake-up on 9/11.) There’s a lot of guilt to go around.

    Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is this wrong? Why aren’t “the facts” enough? Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the facts are already known.” ñ Zizek

    ìFacts are stupid things. ì – Ronald Reagan

  3. Reid

    A lot of people loved Reagan, so his death will bring up those positive feelings, and make it harder critically examine Conservative policies, etc. But check out democracynow.org (or on a tv if you have cable, and they carry it). They’ve been looking critically at the Reagan’s policies for this past week.

    As for the prospects of stepping into the real world (acknowledging our connection and responsibility to it), I can’t say I’m very hopeful either. But I’m not sure what to say about this, as the reasons are complex and difficult to talk about.

    I think Zizek explores these questions in the book, but I’m unclear on his position.

    As for Reagan being one of the first “sale presidents,” as you call him, I think the larger problem is the dominance of TV coupled with the lack of opportunities and space for meaningful dialogue on important political issues. If TV wasn’t the dominant medium and/or people had more opportunities to discuss political issues in serious ways, perhaps, a “sales president” wouldn’t be viable in the US.

  4. Chris Magnusson

    OK,

    I’m finally starting the book. I have been travelling and hosting people like crazy and am finally through the craziest of it.

    Kevin: are you planning to read this/have you read it?

    Chris

  5. kevin

    I haven’t; I am planning to read it, but I’m trying to get through a book my coworker lent me before it’s been too long. I’ll try and pick it up in a couple of weeks.

  6. Reid

    Guys,

    I think we better discuss this book soon. I pretty much forgot the little I understood of this book. I know that Grace and Penny were going to try and read this, too, but I think we should start talking about this soon.

  7. Chris

    I agree — I just finished it a couple of days ago. There is a lot to react to and a lot (esp Lacan) I would need help with. It was a very entertaining pithy book, though.

    Perhaps we should start with one of the essays, try to ‘get’ it as best we can, and that would sort of be a doorway into the other ones.

  8. Chris

    I agree — I just finished it a couple of days ago. There is a lot to react to and a lot (esp Lacan) I would need help with. It was a very entertaining pithy book, though.

    Perhaps we should start with one of the essays, try to ‘get’ it as best we can, and that would sort of be a doorway into the other ones.

  9. Chris

    I agree — I just finished it a couple of days ago. There is a lot to react to and a lot (esp Lacan) I would need help with. It was a very entertaining pithy book, though.

    Perhaps we should start with one of the essays, try to ‘get’ it as best we can, and that would sort of be a doorway into the other ones.

  10. Chris

    I agree — I just finished it a couple of days ago. There is a lot to react to and a lot (esp Lacan) I would need help with. It was a very entertaining pithy book, though.

    Perhaps we should start with one of the essays, try to ‘get’ it as best we can, and that would sort of be a doorway into the other ones.

  11. Tony

    Don’t want to horn in on your discussion, but I thought you might want to know that there’s an interesting interview with Zizek in the June issue of The Believer (currently available at your local Barnes and Noble in the litarary section or more info at believermag.com). Interesting stuff… especially his thoughts on Stalinism, Nazism, and Pauline Christianity.

  12. Reid

    Thanks for the tip, Tony. I’ll try to look for the magazine. What kind of magazine is it anyway (besides a literary magazine)?

    Chris,

    OK, do you want to start? I don’t have the book with me now, so I don’t think I can start. Maybe you can summarize one of the essays as a start.

  13. Tony

    The Believer is this monthly put out by McSweeney’s (Dave Eggers) that pretty much talks about everything. Currently rereading an issue from last year that covers the strange relationship between math and mountain-climbing, the lack of facial description in contemporary novels, the politics of Smallville, and bits from or with David Foster Wallace, Tina Fey, and Nick Hornby. It’s kind of my way to read a bit of everything. Highly recommend it. If you try it, let me know what you think.

  14. Chris

    Reid, and anyone else.

    Unbelievably, I’ve lost the book (temporarily, I’m sure). A greek grammar has also gone missing, so perhaps I threw some books out while sleepwalking and having some kind of intellectual inadequacy dream. Both would have fit the bill.

    Anyway, I won’t at this time be able to construct a summary of one of the essays . . . but a theme that resonated for me often, and was ‘challenging’ to read had to do with his impatience for the liberal academy, and certain tendencies to substitute scorn for substance. I believe one of the best examples he gave was of liberals pronouncing Milosevic just ‘one among many’ bad guys — that the response of the west was somehow shallow because it could have been any ‘tainted’ politician.

    This kind of ‘blame to go around’ thing seems very familiar as a way of elevating myself to some kind of wise level, while getting off the hook about making difficult commitments. I believe this critique sort of puts him in a camp of the “New Sincerity” (with which the lit magazine mentioned above is often grouped).

    This is a common thread in the essays, and one that hits close to home, as I’m a grad student right now, and taking classes where people often opt for a sort of radical pluralism that leaves me a little chilly — it seems so high-minded and imperialistic in its own right. If ‘all voices’ need to be so relentlessly pursued, doesn’t that ultimately say that a voice doesn’t matter — that everything is infinitely fractured into individual perspectives?

    I get the impression that this fixation is largely on the way out, but it still carries a lot of weight, and is sort of the air that many academic communities breathe.

    Another strand, in the first couple of essays, that seemed really interesting (and I have to admit I need to re-read before I can discuss it much more) is the idea of the Real, and his inversion of what we want in the way of the Real as brought to us through an ultimate show — and how 9/11 satisfied this in some way.

    Reid, were any of these themes intriguing to you? What sort of things stood out? I will hopefully (esp since it is a library book) locate that book soon . . .

    Chris

  15. Reid

    Chris,

    This is a common thread in the essays, and one that hits close to home, as I’m a grad student right now, and taking classes where people often opt for a sort of radical pluralism that leaves me a little chilly — it seems so high-minded and imperialistic in its own right. If ‘all voices’ need to be so relentlessly pursued, doesn’t that ultimately say that a voice doesn’t matter — that everything is infinitely fractured into individual perspectives?

    It sounds like you’re talking about relativism. I’ve been against this kind of relativism that ultimately absolves the individual from making a choice about important. I don’t recall that criticism prominently in Zizek’s essays, although my memory of the book is foggy.

    What stood out for me was his criticism of the hypocrisy of the Left. The example he cites about the Left supporting an open immigration policy, even when this policy would affect the people on the Left negatively, because they know those policies would never go into effect.

    I think of hypocrisy because I wonder how many policies liberals would support if it affected each liberal on a more personal, day-to-day level. For example, let’s say we could end world hunger today, but to do so, the middle and upper class would have to forego many of the good foods we enjoy now. Would you be willing to do that? I don’t know if I could. Yet, I would support policies that would try to end world hunger.

    I don’t think this hypocrisy is a big part of Zizek’s critique, but this is something that struck me.

    RE: The “Real”

    Well, I’m hazy on his whole notion of the concept. At one point he talks about how our ultimate fear was a tragedy like 9-11, so that’s what happened…or something to that effect. Well, I’m not sure I buy that or even understand it very well.

    I do sympathesize with the view that Americans have not been living in the real world–specifically the reality of terrorism. There is something terribly wrong (Zizek says “immoral”) about being outraged about terrorism only becaues it happened on U.S. soil. Where was the outrage when it happenened (happens) in other countries?

    I also agree that we have a choice of entering in the real world–namely, recognizing terrorism is a problem everywhere and we must work to stop it everywhere–or going back to our comfortable lives, as if living in the Matrix.

    Are you clear on the concept of Homo Saccer?

  16. Chris

    I think his critique goes beyond a critique of relativism, though that is certainly a part of it (though perhaps passe to him). I think it is more of a critique of the post-modern tendency to stop with decronstruction — to think this de-centering has accomplished something. He characterizes it as smug and effete.

    An example: in a seminar someone says — “Well I think that Arab women are . . . ” And someone replies, “Well, just *which* Arab women are you talking about?” — A valid point but then it goes on ad absurdum infinitum until all points-of-view/voices are almost individualized. This is done in the name of empowering ‘other voices’, but the result is that the powerful just end up with the loudest voices of all (say white women become the ‘norm’ of feminism), and so this highly democratic-looking process becomes ironically autocratic.

    Homo sacer. Unclear — it means either ‘sacred human’ or ‘profane human’. Perhaps it means the reduction of people to sacred objects or individuals rather than ‘political’ humans that is to say people connected to place in terms of full citizenship. It seems like this notion fits in with his critique of Israeli/Western policy toward Palestinians.

    Chris

  17. Reid

    Given the way he uses the term, my guess is that Homo Saccer is closer to “profane human” than “sacred human.” It seems it means a human being that is not protected by any rules of law or any laws for that matter. I could be wrong though.

    I never fully understood the concept of deconstructionism. My understanding is that it is a form of relativism. For example, in literature, the idea would be there is no “real” text, but just the perception and interpretation of each reader. Is that about it?

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