Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Life in Writing

Please see the full interview at

"We learned nothing new really from WikiLeaks," he tells me later. "Julian is like the boy who tells us the emperor is naked – until the boy says it everybody could pretend the emperor wasn't. Don't confuse this with the usual bourgeois heroism which says there is rottenness but the system is basically sound. It is like a man who finds his wife has been fucking around – until he can see in great detail what she has been doing, he can pretend to himself nothing is wrong. Julian strips away that pretence. All power is hypocritical like this. What power finds intolerable is when the hypocrisy is revealed."

Žižek sips hot chocolate and wipes his beard. "I should not, speaking frankly, be this man who talks about The Dark Knight and Hegel, about the value of WikiLeaks and Lady Gaga. I should be a mediocre philosophy professor in Ljubljana." He was born on 21 March 1949 in the Slovenian capital in what was then Yugoslavia to a father (Jože) who was an economist and mother (Vesna), an accountant. He had an unhappy childhood. "I read alone, a Freudian retreat that prepared me for the world in all its disgusting obscenity." He glances at me with a jaunty expression: "I trust that when you write this you will not be the usual shitty journalist who is true to the facts. I am expecting creative distortion of my biography. Truth is overrated: I have always been happiest alone. Why should that be interesting to read about?"

He underestimates his life. As a teenager Slavoj wanted to be a film director, but set that ambition aside after being seduced by Hegel. Like other budding Slovenian philosophers, he was influenced by Marxist philosopher Božidar Debenjak's Frankfurt School-inflected lectures of Marx's Das Kapital from the perspective of Hegel's Phenomenology of the Mind. "Hegel is everything to me. His collected works remain my most treasured possession," he says. But he was seduced later by French post-structuralists – Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva and, above all, Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalytic theorist. He was fired as an assistant researcher at the University of Ljubljana when his PhD was initially rejected for being non-Marxist. He spent four years doing national service and then another four unemployed before getting a job as a recording clerk at the Slovenian Marxist Centre, where he became involved with scholars committed to Lacanian psychoanalysis.

He spent the early 1980s in Paris, studying psychoanalysis with Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault, before returning to Slovenia where he joined dissident groups critical of Tito's regime. "I was a member of the Communist party until 1988 when it became disgusting to remain in a party that defended militarism." After Tito fell, Žižek – by then a celebrated figure in his homeland as columnist for alternative youth magazine Mladina, and as a leading member of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights – decided to run as a candidate for the presidency of the Republic of Slovenia in the first free elections, in 1990. He stood for the Liberal Democratic party and came fifth. "Politics," he reflects, "has always been shitty. It is something I am involved in often against my will. My first interest is theory. I am a Hegelian looking for facts to fit the theory."

During this period he developed his literary style in dissident magazines and journals, with Marxist, Hegelian and Lacanian thought juxtaposed with critical analyses of cinema and popular culture in a sometimes appealing sometimes exasperating written equivalent of jazz improvisation. His first book to appear in English, 1989's The Sublime Object of Ideology, brought that style to a broader audience. It used examples from high and low culture in order to explain his understanding of Hegel's dialectic, the basic thesis that underpins all his analyses, and one which finds that contradiction is an internal condition of every identity. Contradiction was also the internal condition of Slavoj Žižek, bearing out Oscar Wilde's dictum: "The well bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves." "My thinking moves so quickly how could it not be full of contradictions?" he asks.

More books in English followed in rapid succession, including For They Know Not What They Do (1991, a book framing the re-emergence of militant nationalism and racism in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe as a Lacanian eruption of enjoyment), Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology (1993), Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), The Parallax View (2006) and In Defence of Lost Causes (2008).

These books (and several others) earned Žižek much praise. Terry Eagleton called him "the most formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in general to have emerged from Europe in some decades". Film-maker Sophie Fiennes, who directed him in The Pervert's Guide to the Cinema, a 2005 Channel 4 TV documentary in which he presents marvellously Lacanian analyses of some of his favourite films, says: "He is very much a thinker for our turbulent, high speed, information-led lives precisely because he insists on the freedom to stop and think hard about who you are as an individual in this fragmented society." The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed him "the Elvis of cultural theory".

The blurb for his new books says he has made philosophy relevant for a whole generation of politically committed readers. Žižek demurs. "A lot of what I write is blah, blah, bullshit, a diversion from the 700-page book on Hegel I should be writing."

In 2009, responding to a call for a reconsideration of communism by his friend, Parisian philosopher Alain Badiou, Žižek took part in a London conference to test the notion that capitalism was on the point (yet again) of falling apart from its own contradictions and so theorising the emancipated future was imperative. He went on to co-edit The Idea of Communism, a book urging lapsed comrades to raise the red flag anew. "Don't be afraid, join us, come back!" Žižek wrote. "You've had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it – time to get serious once again!"

Are you or have you ever been a communist? "Not as you might imagine. Marx wrote about the commons – he meant land and property. I mean information. When we pay rent to Bill Gates that is a new kind of enclosure. WikiLeaks represents a threat to such control of information."

Do you really believe in such a society? "I am a philosopher not a prophet. I don't answer questions but ask them to critique our society. Benjamin said it is the task of the leftist thinker not to ride the train of history but to apply the brake. It is also important not to say what everybody else is saying. It is boring, for instance, to criticise the US eternally. Why not China instead? It is China, after all, where they have banned fictional works considering alternative worlds, because they are afraid of their citizens' imaginations. It is China that is colonising Africa."


Friday, July 8, 2011

Our Task Today

From "Robespierre or the 'Divine Violence' of Terror"

please see the full article online at


The Jacobin revolutionary terror is sometimes (half)justified as the "founding crime" of the bourgeois universe of law and order, in which citizens are allowed to pursue in piece their interests, one should reject this claim on two accounts. Not only is it factually wrong (many conservatives were quite right to point out that one can achieve the bourgeois law and order also without the terrorist excess, as was the case in Great Britain - although there is Cromwell...); much more important, the revolutionary Terror of 1792-1794 was not a case of what Walter Benjamin and others call state-founding violence, but a case of "divine violence." [5] Interpreters of Benjamin struggle with what could "divine violence" effectively mean - is it yet another Leftist dream of a "pure" event which never really takes place? One should recall here Friedrich Engels's reference to the Paris Commune as an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat:

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. [6]

One should repeat this, mutatis mutandis, apropos divine violence: "Well and good, gentlemen critical theorists, do you want to know what this divine violence looks like? Look at the revolutionary Terror of 1992-1994. That was the Divine Violence." (And the series goes on: the Red Terror of 1919...) That is to say, one should fearlessly identify divine violence with positively existing historical phenomena, thus avoiding all obscurantist mystification. When those outside the structured social field strike "blindly," demanding AND enacting immediate justice/vengeance, this is "divine violence" - recall, a decade or so ago, the panic in Rio de Janeiro when crowds descended from favelasinto the rich part of the city and started looting and burning supermarkets - THIS was "divine violence"... Like the biblical locusts, the divine punishment for men's sinful ways, it strikes out of nowhere, a means without end - or, as Robespierre put it in his speech in which he demanded the execution of Louis XVI: "Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts."

The Benjaminian "divine violence" should be thus conceived as divine in the precise sense of the old Latin motto vox populi, vox dei: NOT in the perverse sense of "we are doing it as mere instruments of the People's Will," but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of sovereign decision. It is a decision (to kill, to risk or lose one's own life) made in the absolute solitude, with no cover in the big Other. If it is extra-moral, it is not "immoral," it does not give the agent the license to just kill with some kind of angelic innocence. The motto of divine violence is fiat iustitia, pereat mundus: it is JUSTICE, the point of non-distinction between justice and vengeance, in which "people" (the anonymous part of no-part) imposes its terror and makes other parts pay the price - the Judgment Day for the long history of oppression, exploitation, suffering - or, as Robespierre himself put it in a poignant way:

What do you want, you who would like truth to be powerless on the lips of representatives of the French people? Truth undoubtedly has its power, it has its anger, its own despotism; it has touching accents and terrible ones, that resound with force in pure hearts as in guilty consciences, and that untruth can no more imitate than Salome can imitate the thunderbolts of heaven; but accuse nature of it, accuse the people, which wants it and loves it.

And this is what Robespierre aims at in his famous accusation to the moderates that what they really want is a "revolution without a revolution": they want a revolution deprived of the excess in which democracy and terror coincide, a revolution respecting social rules, subordinated to pre-existing norms, a revolution in which violence is deprived of the "divine" dimension and thus reduced to a strategic intervention serving precise and limited goals:

Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that can follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? At that price, what people could ever have shaken off the yoke of despotism? For while it is true that a great nation cannot rise in a simultaneous movement, and that tyranny can only be hit by the portion of citizens that is closest to it, how would these ever dare to attack it if, after the victory, delegates from remote parts could hold them responsible for the duration or violence of the political torment that had saved the homeland? They ought to be regarded as justified by tacit proxy for the whole of society. The French, friends of liberty, meeting in Paris last August, acted in that role, in the name of all the departments. They should either be approved or repudiated entirely. To make them criminally responsible for a few apparent or real disorders, inseparable from so great a shock, would be to punish them for their devotion.

This authentic revolutionary logic can be discerned already at the level of rhetorical figures, where Robespierre likes to turn around the standard procedure of first evoking an apparently "realist" position and then displaying its illusory nature: he often starts with presenting a position or description of a situation as absurd exaggeration, fiction, and then goes on to remind us that what, in a first approach, cannot but appear as a fiction, is actually truth itself: "But what am I saying? What I have just presented as an absurd hypothesis is actually a very certain reality." It is this radical revolutionary stance which also enables Robespierre to denounce the "humanitarian" concern with victims of the revolutionary "divine violence": "A sensibility that wails almost exclusively over the enemies of liberty seems suspect to me. Stop shaking the tyrant's bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains." The critical analysis and the acceptance of the historical legacy of the Jacobins overlap in the true question to be raised: does the (often deplorable) actuality of the revolutionary terror compel us to reject the very idea of Terror, or is there a way to REPEAT it in today's different historical constellation, to redeem its virtual content from its actualization? It CAN and SHOULD be done, and the most concise formula of repeating the event designated by the name "Robespierre" is: to pass from (Robespierre's) humanist terror to anti-humanist (or, rather, inhuman) terror.

In his Le siècle, Alain Badiou conceives as a sign of the political regression that occurred towards the end of the XXth century the shift from "humanism AND terror" to "humanism OR terror." In 1946, Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote Humanism and Terror, his defense of the Soviet Communism as involving a kind of Pascalean wager that announces the topic of what Bernard Williams later developed as "moral luck": the present terror will be retroactively justified if the society that will emerge from it will be truly human; today, such a conjunction of terror and humanism is properly unthinkable, the predominant liberal view replaces AND with OR: either humanism or terror... More precisely, there are four variations on this motif: humanism AND terror, humanism OR terror, each either in a "positive" or in a "negative" sense. "Humanism and terror" in a positive sense is what Merleau-Ponty elaborated, it sustains Stalinism (the forceful - "terrorist" - engendering of the New Man), and is already clearly discernible in the French Revolution, in the guise of Robespierre's conjunction of virtue and terror. This conjunction can be negated in two ways. It can involve the choice "humanism OR terror," i.e., the liberal-humanist project in all its versions, from the dissident anti-Stalinist humanism up to today's neo-Habermasians (Luc Ferry & Alain Renault in France) and other defenders of human rights AGAINST (totalitarian, fundamentalist) terror. Or it can retain the conjunction "humanism AND terror," but in a negative mode: all those philosophical and ideological orientations, from Heidegger and conservative Christians to partisans of Oriental spirituality and Deep Ecology, who perceive terror as the truth - the ultimate consequence - of the humanist project itself, of its hubris.

There is, however, a fourth variation, usually left aside: the choice "humanism OR terror," but with TERROR, not humanism, as a positive term. This is a radical position difficult to sustain, but, perhaps, our only hope: it does not amount to the obscene madness of openly pursuing a "terrorist and inhuman politics", but something much more difficult to think. In today's "post-deconstructionist" thought (if one risks this ridiculous designation which cannot but sound as its own parody), the term "inhuman" gained a new weight, especially in the work of Agamben and Badiou. The best way to approach it is via Freud's reluctance to endorse the injunction "Love thy neighbor!" - the temptation to be resisted here is the ethical domestication of the neighbor - for example, what Emmanuel Levinas did with his notion of the neighbor as the abyssal point from which the call of ethical responsibility emanates. What Levinas thereby obfuscates is the monstrosity of the neighbor, monstrosity on account of which Lacan applies to the neighbor the term Thing (das Ding), used by Freud to designate the ultimate object of our desires in its unbearable intensity and impenetrability. One should hear in this term all the connotations of horror fiction: the neighbor is the (Evil) Thing which potentially lurks beneath every homely human face. Just think about Stephen King's Shining, in which the father, a modest failed writer, gradually turns into a killing beast who, with an evil grin, goes on to slaughter his entire family. In a properly dialectical paradox, what Levinas, with all his celebration of the Otherness, fails to take into account is not some underlying Sameness of all humans but the radically "inhuman" Otherness itself: the Otherness of a human being reduced to inhumanity, the Otherness exemplified by the terrifying figure of the Muselmann, the "living dead" in the concentration camps. At a different level, the same goes for Stalinist Communism. In the standard Stalinist narrative, even the concentration camps were a place of the fight against Fascism where imprisoned Communists were organizing networks of heroic resistance - in such a universe, of course, there is no place for the limit-experience of the Muselmann, of the living dead deprived of the capacity of human engagement - no wonder that Stalinist Communists were so eager to "normalize" the camps into just another site of the anti-Fascist struggle, dismissing Muselmann as simply those who were to weak to endure the struggle.

It is against this background that one can understand why Lacan speaks of the inhuman core of the neighbor. Back in the 1960s, the era of structuralism, Louis Althusser launched the notorious formula of "theoretical anti-humanism," allowing, demanding even, that it be supplemented by practical humanism. In our practice, we should act as humanists, respecting the others, treating them as free persons with full dignity, creators of their world. However, in theory, we should no less always bear in mind that humanism is an ideology, the way we spontaneously experience our predicament, and that the true knowledge of humans and their history should treat individuals not as autonomous subjects, but as elements in a structure which follows its own laws. In contrast to Althusser, Lacan accomplishes the passage from theoretical to practical anti-humanism, i.e., to an ethics that goes beyond the dimension of what Nietzsche called "human, all too human," and confront the inhuman core of humanity. This does not mean only an ethics which no longer denies, but fearlessly takes into account, the latent monstrosity of being-human, the diabolic dimension which exploded in phenomena usually covered by the concept-name "Auschwitz" - an ethics that would be still possible after Auschwitz, to paraphrase Adorno. This inhuman dimension is for Lacan at the same time the ultimate support of ethics.

In philosophical terms, this "inhuman" dimension can be defined as that of a subject subtracted from all form of human "individuality" or "personality" (which is why, in today's popular culture, one of the exemplary figures of pure subject is a non-human - alien, cyborg - who displays more fidelity to the task, dignity and freedom than its human counterparts, from the Schwarzenegger-figure in Terminator to the Rutger-Hauer-android in Blade Runner). Recall Husserl's dark dream, from his Cartesian Meditations, of how the transcendental cogito would remain unaffected by a plague that would annihilate entire humanity: it is easy, apropos this example, to score cheap points about the self-destructive background of the transcendental subjectivity, and about how Husserl misses the paradox of what Foucault, in his Let mots et les choses, called the "transcendental-empirical doublet," of the link that forever attaches the transcendental ego to the empirical ego, so that the annihilation of the latter by definition leads to the disappearance of the first. However, what if, fully recognizing this dependence as a fact (and nothing more than this - a stupid fact of being), one nonetheless insists on the truth of its negation, the truth of the assertion of the independence of the subject with regard to the empirical individuals qua living being? Is this independence not demonstrated in the ultimate gesture of risking one's life, on being ready to forsake one's being? It is against the background of this topic of sovereign acceptance of death that one should reread the rhetorical turn often referred to as the proof of Robespierre's "totalitarian" manipulation of his audience. [7] This turn took place in the midst of Robespierre's speech in the National Assembly on 11 Germinal Year II (31 March 1794); the previous night, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and some others were arrested, so many members of the Assembly were understandably afraid that their turn will also come. Robespierre directly addresses the moment as pivotal: "Citizens, the moment has come to speak the truth." He then goes on to evoke the fear floating in the room:

One wants /on veut/ to make you fear abuses of power, of the national power you have exercised /.../ One wants to make us fear that the people will fall victim to the Committees /.../ One fears that the prisoners are being oppressed /.../

The opposition is here between the impersonal "one" (the instigators of fear are not personified) and the collective thus put under pressure, which almost imperceptibly shifts from the plural second-person "you /vous/" to first-person "us" (Robespierre gallantly includes himself into the collective). However, the final formulation introduces an ominous twist: it is no longer that "one wants to make you/us fear," but that "one fears," which means that the enemy stirring up fear is no longer outside "you/us," members of the Assembly, it is here, among us, among "you" addressed by Robespierre, corroding our unity from within. At this precise moment, Robespierre, in a true master's stroke, assumes full subjectivization - waiting a little bit for the ominous effect of his words to take place, he then continued in the first person singular:

I say that anyone who trembles at this moment is guilty; for innocence never fears public scrutiny.

What can be more "totalitarian" than this closed loop of "your very fear of being guilty makes you guilty" - a weird superego-twisted version of the well-known motto "the only thing to fear is fear itself"? One should nonetheless move beyond the quick dismissal of Robespierre's rhetorical strategy as the strategy of "terrorist culpabilization," and to discern its moment of truth: there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary decision, because, in such moments, innocence itself - exempting oneself from the decision, going on as if the struggle I am witnessing doesn't really concern me - IS the highest treason. That is to say, the fear of being accused of treason IS my treason, because, even if I "did not do anything against the revolution," this fear itself, the fact that it emerged in me, demonstrates that my subjective position is external to the revolution, that I experience "revolution" as an external force threatening me.

But what goes on in this unique speech is even more revealing: Robespierre directly addresses the touchy question that has to arise in the mind of his public - how can he himself be sure that he will not be the next in line to be accused? He is not the master exempted from the collective, the "I" outside "we" - after all, he was once very close to Danton, a powerful figure now under arrest, so what if, tomorrow, his proximity to Danton will be used against him? In short, how can Robespierre be sure that the process he unleashed will not swallow him? It is here that his position assumes the sublime greatness - he fully assumes the danger that the danger that now threatens Danton will tomorrow threaten him. The reason that he is so serene, that he is not afraid of this fate, is not that Danton was a traitor, while he, Robespierre, is pure, a direct embodiment of the people's Will; it is that he, Robespierre, IS NOT AFRAID TO DIE - his eventual death will be a mere accident which counts for nothing:

What does danger matter to me? My life belongs to the Fatherland; my heart is free from fear; and if I were to die, I would do so without reproach and without ignominy.

Consequently, insofar as the shift from "we" to "I" can effectively be determined as the moment when the democratic mask falls down and when Robespierre openly asserts himself as a Master (up to this point, we follow Lefort's analysis), the term Master has to be given here its full Hegelian weight: the Master is the figure of sovereignty, the one who is not afraid to die, who is ready to risk everything. In other words, the ultimate meaning of Robespierre's first-person singular ("I") is: I am not afraid to die. What authorizes him is just this, not any kind of direct access to the big Other, i.e., he doesn't claim that he has a direct access to the people's Will which speaks through him. This is how Yamamoto Jocho, a Zen priest, described the proper attitude of a warrior: "every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. There is a saying of the elders that goes, 'Step from under the eaves and you're a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.' This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand." [8] This is why, according to Hillis Lory, many Japanese soldiers in WWII performed their own funerals before living for the battlefield:

Many of the soldiers in the present war are so determined to die on the battlefield that they conduct their own public funerals before leaving for the front. This holds no element of the ridiculous to the Japanese. Rather, it is admired as the spirit of the true samurai who enters the battle with no thought of return. [9]

This preemptive self-exclusion from the domain of the living, of course, turns the soldier into a properly sublime figure. Instead of dismissing this feature as part of the Fascist militarism, one should assert it as also constitutive of a radical revolutionary position: there is a straight line that runs from this acceptance of one's own disappearance to Mao Zedong's reaction to the atomic bomb threat from 1955:

The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the U.S. atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system."("The Chinese People Cannot Be Cowed by the Atom Bomb")

There evidently is an "inhuman madness" in this argument: is the fact that the destruction of the planet Earth "would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole" not a rather poor solace for the extinguished humanity? The argument only works if, in a Kantian way, one presupposes a pure transcendental subject non-affected by this catastrophe - a subject which, although non-existing in reality, IS operative as a virtual point of reference. Every authentic revolutionary has to assume this attitude of thoroughly abstracting from, despising even, the imbecilic particularity of one's immediate existence, or, as Saint-Just formulated in an unsurpassable way this indifference towards what Benjamin called "bare life": "I despise the dust that forms me and speaks to you." [10] Che Guevara approached the same line of though when, in the midst of the unbearable tension of the Cuban missile crisis, he advocated a fearless approach of risking the new world war which would involve (at least) the total annihilation of the Cuban people - he praised the heroic readiness of the Cuban people to risk its disappearance.

Another "inhuman" dimension of the couple Virtue-Terror promoted by Robespierre is the rejection of habit (in the sense of the agency of realistic compromises). Every legal order (or every order of explicit normativity) has to rely on a complex "reflexive" network of informal rules which tells us how are we to relate to the explicit norms, how are we to apply them: to what extent are we to take them literally, how and when are we allowed, solicited even, to disregard them, etc. - and this is the domain of habit. To know the habits of a society is to know the meta-rules of how to apply its explicit norms: when to use them or not use them; when to violate them; when not to use a choice which is offered; when we are effectively obliged to do something, but have to pretend that we are doing it as a free choice (like in the case of potlatch). Recall the polite offer-meant-to-be-refused: it is a "habit" to refuse such an offer, and anyone who accepts such an offer commits a vulgar blunder. The same goes for many political situations in which a choice is given on condition that we make the right choice: we are solemnly reminded that we can say no - but we are expected to we reject this offer and enthusiastically say yes. With many sexual prohibitions, the situation is the opposite one: the explicit "no" effectively functions as the implicit injunction "do it, but in a discreet way!" Measured against this background, revolutionary-egalitarian figures from Robespierre to John Brown are (potentially, at least) figures without habits: they refuse to take into account the habits that qualify the functioning of a universal rule:

Such is the natural dominion of habit that we regard the most arbitrary conventions, sometimes indeed the most defective institutions, as absolute measures of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice. It does not even occur to us that most are inevitably still connected with the prejudices on which despotism fed us. We have been so long stooped under its yoke that we have some difficulty in raising ourselves to the eternal principles of reason; anything that refers to the sacred source of all law seems to us to take on an illegal character, and the very order of nature seems to us a disorder. The majestic movements of a great people, the sublime fervors of virtue often appear to our timid eyes as something like an erupting volcano or the overthrow of political society; and it is certainly not the least of the troubles bothering us, this contradiction between the weakness of our morals, the depravity of our minds, and the purity of principle and energy of character demanded by the free government to which we have dared aspire.

To break the yoke of habits means: if all men are equal, than all men are to be effectively treated as equal; if blacks are also human, they should be immediately treated as such. Recall the early stages of the struggle against slavery in the US, which, even prior to the Civil War, culminated in the armed conflict between the gradualism of compassionate liberals and the unique figure of John Brown:

African Americans were caricatures of people, they were characterized as buffoons and minstrels, they were the butt-end of jokes in American society. And even the abolitionists, as antislavery as they were, the majority of them did not see African Americans as equals. The majority of them, and this was something that African Americans complained about all the time, were willing to work for the end of slavery in the South but they were not willing to work to end discrimination in the North. /.../ John Brown wasn't like that. For him, practicing egalitarianism was a first step toward ending slavery. And African Americans who came in contact with him knew this immediately. He made it very clear that he saw no difference, and he didn't make this clear by saying it, he made it clear by what he did. [11]

For this reason, John Brown is the KEY political figure in the history of US: in his fervently Christian "radical abolitionism," he came closest to introducing the Jacobin logic into the US political landscape: "John Brown considered himself a complete egalitarian. And it was very important for him to practice egalitarianism on every level. /.../ He made it very clear that he saw no difference, and he didn't make this clear by saying it, he made it clear by what he did." [12] Today even, long after slavery was abolished, Brown is the dividing figure in American collective memory; those whites who support Brown are all the more precious - among them, surprisingly, Henry David Thoreau, the great opponent of violence: against the standard dismissal of Brown as blood-thirsty, foolish and insane, Thoreau [13] painted a portrait of a peerless man whose embracement of a cause was unparalleled; he even goes as far as to liken Brown's execution (he states that he regards Brown as dead before his actual death) to Christ. Thoreau vents at the scores of those who have voiced their displeasure and scorn for John Brown: the same people can't relate to Brown because of their concrete stances and "dead" existences; they are truly not living, only a handful of men have lived.

It is, however, this very consequent egalitarianism which is simultaneously the limitations of the Jacobin politics. Recall Marx's fundamental insight about the "bourgeois" limitation of the logic of equality: the capitalist inequalities ("exploitations") are not the "unprincipled violations of the principle of equality," but are absolutely inherent to the logic of equality, they are the paradoxical result of its consequent realization. What we have in mind here is not only the old boring motif of how market exchange presupposes formally/legally equal subjects who meet and interact on the market; the crucial moment of Marx's critique of "bourgeois" socialists is that capitalist exploitation does not involve any kind of "unequal" exchange between the worker and the capitalist - this exchange is fully equal and "just," ideally (in principle), the worker gets paid the full value of the commodity he is selling (his labour force). Of course, radical bourgeois revolutionaries are aware of this limitation; however, the way they try to amend it is through a direct "terrorist" imposition of more and more de facto equality (equal salaries, equal health service...), which can only be imposed through new forms of formal inequality (different sorts of preferential treatments of the under-privileged). In short, the axiom of "equality" means either not enough (it remains the abstract form of actual inequality) or too much (enforce "terrorist" equality) - it is a formalist notion in a strict dialectical sense, i.e., its limitation is precisely that its form is not concrete enough, but a mere neutral container of some content that eludes this form.

The problem here is not terror as such - our task today is precisely to reinvent emancipatory terror.


Monday, July 4, 2011

2011-07-02 RECORDED STREAM of Assange, Žižek & Goodman Conversation July 2, 11am EDT

This Saturday, July 2, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman will moderate a conversation with Julian Assange and Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. The event is sponsored by the Frontline Club, and broadcast from The Troxy theater in London.

The focus of the event will be the "ethics and philosophy behind WikiLeaks’ work, the talk will provide a rare opportunity to hear two of the world’s most prominent thinkers discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time," according to the Democracy Now web site.

The conversation coincides with the "publication of the paperback edition of Žižek’s Living in the End Times, in which he argues that new ways of using and sharing information, in particular WikiLeaks, are one of a number of harbingers of the end of global capitalism as we know it."

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