Friday, August 31, 2012

The Silence of the Lambs

from “The Fantastic Emergence of Narrative: Educational Fantasies in Žižek’s Atheistic Theology”

by Sam Rocha

Slavoj Žižek’s thought is not so much complex or disjointed, as critics like to caricature it. It is layered: embedded in deeply personal, biographical concerns he constantly connects between his internal life and external studies—and the performative and intellectual habits that come with them. My reading of Žižek takes his work as purely confessional. Nothing more, nothing less. Even his immense—and also widely criticized—productivity can only be seen, in my view, as someone who has a lot to confess.

This confessional reading of Žižek takes his Lacanian psychoanalytic lens and does to it what one would do in an action movie to someone aggressing with a pistol: force the barrel back toward the antagonist and pull the trigger. The result of this homicide is theology. In fact, it is precisely his suicidal and atheistic reading of the passion of Christ through G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that warrants this murderous strategy. What we are left with after his theological turn, I will argue, is a reading of Žižek own assimilation of Lacan’s critique of narrative as a reflexive, inchoate, confession that displaces his Hegelian philosophical insistence with the pregnant core of his status as an atheist theologian (or materialist theologian): an educational fantasy.

This reading is not principally trying to innovate a way to handle or sythensize Žižek. It is more ambitious than that. I will use Žižek to affirm the psychoanalytic description of education, most notably championed by Deborah Britzman, as happening unconsciously, within the domain of fantasy. However, unlike the Freudian narrativist approach, the value of Žižek to education is precisely in being able to see a performance of fantasy—in his theology—that re-produces the fantastic in a Lacanian way that goes behind narrative and brings us back to the root of the psychic productions of education.

To be more direct: there are two common-sense claims of and about education that this chapter will seek to dismantle:  (1) the mistaken idea that education’s philosophical import is primarily an epistemological and/or psychological concern and (2) the narrative, linguistic, or hermeneutic—one can call it whatever what one likes—turn of the previous century that has infected education to the point that it is often considered to be purely narrative. Žižek provides, throughout his work, a serious engagement with the (political) return to ontology in continental philosophy that rejects the epistemological claim and his psychoanalytic method is a drastic contrast to the tyrannical assumptions of contemporary educational psychology. More powerfully, his appropriation of Lacan’s critique of narrativism, most notably in The Plague of Fantasies, only furthers the ontological and psychoanalytic contrast, leaving us with new ways of responding to the fundamental question,

“What is education?”

Two questions: Who is Žižek? What is education?


The Empowerment of the Right and the Dissolution of the Left

Letter from Nadya Tolokonnikova

Hi, Slavoj!
We received the news that you have been supporting us in every way – in theory and in practice. You are awesome! This has proven to be the continuation of the political liberation miracle-movement, whose birth for us now is unbelievable. I love miracles and their idiosyncracies. All of our activity is full of wonder.
The inmates are learning ‘about the violence’.
Thanks for everything!
Good luck to all.
23 August 2012

Doctor Who?

The corporations behind WebMD’s friendly, free advice

After it was nailed for servicing BigPharma, WebMD, the popular medical and health information/advice site, gave itself an ethical makeover. Now, like a prostitute dressed by Talbot’s, WebMD is more subtle, if not less whorish.

The precipitating event for WebMD’s touch-up was the furor around a 2010 online questionnaire sponsored by Eli Lilly, one of WebMD’s original partners. No matter how you answered the quiz, it diagnosed depression and linked you to a river of pills.

Faced with Byzantine health insurance, or none at all, people are increasingly going online to diagnose their real and imagined ills. WebMD “reach[es] 95 percent of all adult Americans looking for health information online each year, [and] 72 percent of physicians recommend to their patients,” WebMD’s then-CEO Wayne Gattinella wrote to Sen. Charles Grassley after the Lilly questionnaire sparked the Iowa Republican to launch an investigation.

Gattinella, a marketing executive at various drug companies before joining WebMD, was not coy about WebMD’s financial model. “We generate revenues primarily through the sale of advertising and sponsorship programs to pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device companies, and [health, diet and fitness-related] consumer products, [as well as] licensing content to insurance companies and health plans.”

It’s unlikely that WebMD’s new CEO, Cavan Redmond, appointed on May 31, will end the insalubrious industry hookups. Redmond, who has also worked at Wyeth and Sandoz, moved to WebMD from a senior executive position at Pfizer’s marketing arm. That gig, the trade website Medical Marketing and Media noted, will give him “a keen understanding of what [WebMD’s] advertisers want.”

What consumers want is sound, independent information. But they, along with experts and doctors, are bombarded with manipulative advertising and industry-funded drug and device studies that can incorporate shady or even illegal tactics to obscure bad science and conflicts of interest.

Industry-funded, ad-reliant medical websites such as WebMD reflect the same market pressures and biases. Some WebMD ads are annoying but obvious. Others, barely set off by the word “advertisement” in minuscule pale gray type, blend into edited news and features. More insidious is content wholly generated by advertisers, which, despite being labeled “sponsored,” is often set in the same font, colors and style as WebMD’s “independent” information.

WebMD’s section “Close the Gap” offers one small example of how the new “subtle” works. It examines the special burden of heart disease on blacks, Latinos and other minorities. Although part of the WebMD site, the section is actually created and sponsored by Boston Scientific, which sells almost $8 billion annually in medical devices, especially those related to cardiac surgery. You need to click on a link to reveal the disclaimer that content “is not reviewed by the WebMD Editorial department for accuracy, objectivity or balance.”

Visitors to “Close the Gap” who are concerned about heart disease can also click to find a list of a few dozen featured doctors. These physicians, the site notes, “are not paid any fees for inclusion to either WebMD or Boston Scientific.” But that policy does not exclude other rewards: Seven of the highlighted doctors are members of Boston Scientific’s 17-person steering committee. (One, Cam Patterson, racked up more than $78,000 in speaking and other fees from Pfizer in a little more than a year, according to ProPublica’s Dollars for Doctors database.) WebMD “news” videos have also featured six Boston Science steering committee members as experts on a variety of topics.

Is it a coincidence that WebMD’s chosen experts are affiliated with a major advertiser, Boston Scientific—which in turn just happens to list members of its steering committee as go-to docs?

With its history of scandals and sleazy deals, Boston Scientific has not earned the benefit of the doubt. In 2010, the U.S. government fined Boston Scientific (which acquired Guidant in 2006) $22 million for paying doctors to implant Guidant-manufactured devices, including defibrillators and pacemakers, into heart patients. While the doctors incurred no punishment for accepting these apparent bribes, Army cardiologist Maj. Jason Davis faced a stricter ethical environment. He was found guilty of accepting cash payments, extravagant meals and other gifts to use Boston Scientific devices on, among others, wounded veterans.

Davis violated a “bright line rule,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan. “Military doctors must owe their allegiance to the soldiers and families they treat—not to drug companies or makers of medical devices.” As part of the judgment, Boston Scientific is required  to post all payments to healthcare professionals. In 2011, the typical payout was $500 or less, but some topped $10,000. The list that year had more than 48,000 names.
Other major WebMD advertising sources include the nutrition and diet industry, along with processed-food manufacturers. Numerous WebMD news videos and stories tacitly endorse fast food by posing misleading questions such as “Fast-Food French Fries: Which Are Healthiest?” In “Fast Food Survival,” the only quoted expert, “Jodie Worrell, RD, Chick-fil-A dietitian,” praises the healthiness of her company’s chicken sandwich.
On WebMD’s U.K. site (called BootsWebMD after the pharmacy chain that cosponsors it), a Kellogg’s-funded “advertorial” asserts that a “panel of world health experts … concluded that a high sugar intake is not related to the development of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or cancer.” And that Kellogg’s breakfast cereals, some packing more sugar than a Twinkie, “do not increase the risk of tooth decay” when eaten with milk. (Insert British dental joke here.)

The deeper problem is not the soundness of WebMD’s information. Rather, the site’s often-useful material and reasonable blandness promote trust that makes it easier to steer visitors to sponsors, and sometimes to frighten them toward unnecessary testing, procedures and drugs.

WedMD’s extensive data mining provides another problematic revenue stream. When visitors research embarrassing, or insurance- and job-threatening conditions, that information—along with data from the site’s many questionnaires and quizzes—is collected, used internally and sold. WedMD’s privacy policy warns that the site collects “personal information” when you sign up for its newsletters or use its many services, such as “Email a Friend” or the “Ovulation/Pregnancy Calendar.” WebMD also collects “non-personal information” from “external sources, even if you have not registered with or provided any personal information to WebMD.” Although the site pledges privacy for children, visitors who describe themselves as over 12 relinquish control over how their information is used.

Meanwhile, WebMD is having its own health problems. Redmond addressed “our declining revenues” in a July 31 company conference call. The new CEO blamed the company’s failure to “anticipate the unprecedented reduction in overall spending” by the biopharmaceutical industry, which has seen many of its blockbuster drugs displaced by cheaper generics.  

Redmond is looking to mobile apps, “diversifying our customer base” and “consumer products” to cure what ails the company.

“As the biopharmaceutical commercial model continues to evolve, WebMD can capitalize on these changes,” Redmond said in the company’s June 1 press release announcing his taking the helm. “WebMD is driving innovation in the rapidly changing healthcare market … for consumers, physicians and healthcare companies.”

And therein lies the problem: the fundamental conflict between a business model that is reliant on pleasing BigPharma and other advertisers, and unbiased healthcare information that serves the public.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Slavoj Žižek: The politics of Batman

From the repression of unruly citizens to the celebration of the “good capitalist”, The Dark Knight Rises reflects our age of anxiety.

By Slavoj Žižek [1] Published 23 August 2012

From the repression of unruly citizens to the celebration of the “good capitalist”, The Dark Knight Rises reflects our age of anxiety.

Fear city: the director Christopher Nolan's latest Batman film consciously explores modern anxieties about "economic fairness". Image: Warner Brothers Extended Artwork
The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies. Here is the storyline. Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, the previous instalment of Chris­topher Nolan’s Batman series, law and order prevail in Gotham City. Under the extraordinary powers granted by the Dent Act, Commissioner Gordon has nearly eradicated violent and organised crime. He nonetheless feels guilty about the cover-up of the crimes of Harvey Dent and plans to confess to the conspiracy at a public event – but he decides that the city is not ready to hear the truth.

No longer active as Batman, Bruce Wayne lives isolated in his manor. His company is crumbling after he invested in a clean-energy project designed to harness fusion power but then shut it down, on learning that the core could be modified to become a nuclear weapon. The beautiful Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, encourages Wayne to rejoin society and continue his philanthropic good works.
Here enters the first villain of the film. Bane, a terrorist leader who was a member of the League of Shadows, gets hold of a copy of the commissioner’s speech. After Bane’s financial machinations bring Wayne’s company close to bankruptcy, Wayne entrusts control of his enterprise to Miranda and also has a brief love affair with her. Learning that Bane has also got hold of his fusion core, Wayne returns as Batman and confronts Bane. Crippling Batman in close combat, Bane detains him in a prison from which escape is almost impossible. While the imprisoned Wayne recovers from his injuries and retrains himself to be Batman, Bane succeeds in turning Gotham City into an isolated city state. He first lures most of Gotham’s police force underground and traps them there; then he sets off explosions that destroy most of the bridges connecting Gotham to the mainland and announces that any attempt to leave the city will result in the detonation of Wayne’s fusion core, which has been converted into a bomb.

Now we reach the crucial moment of the film: Bane’s takeover is accompanied by a vast politico-ideological offensive. He publicly exposes the cover-up of Dent’s death and releases the prisoners locked up under the Dent Act. Condemning the rich and powerful, he promises to restore the power of the people, calling on citizens, “Take your city back.” Bane reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be “the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and overthrow societal elites”. What follows is the film’s idea of people power – summary show trials and executions of the rich, the streets surrendered to crime and villainy.

A couple of months later, while Gotham City continues to suffer under popular terror, Wayne escapes from prison, returns as Batman and enlists his friends to help liberate the city and disable the fusion bomb before it explodes. Batman confronts and subdues Bane but Mir­anda intervenes and stabs Batman. She reveals herself to be Talia al-Ghul, daughter of Ra’s al-Ghul, the former leader of the League of Shadows (the villains in Batman Begins). After announcing her plan to complete her father’s work in destroying Gotham City, Talia escapes.

In the ensuing mayhem, Commissioner Gordon cuts off the bomb’s remote detonation function, while a benevolent cat burglar named Selina Kyle kills Bane, freeing Batman to chase Talia. He tries to force her to take the bomb to the fusion chamber where it can be stabilised, but she floods the chamber. Talia dies, confident that the bomb cannot be stopped, when her truck is knocked off the road and crashes. Using a special helicopter, Batman hauls the bomb beyond the city limits, where it detonates over the ocean and pre­sumably kills him. Batman is now celebrated as a hero whose sacrifice saved Gotham City. Wayne is believed to have died in the riots. While his estate is being divided up, his butler, Alfred, sees Wayne and Selina together alive in a café in Florence. Blake, a young and honest policeman who knew about Batman’s identity, inherits the Batcave. The first clue to the ideological underpinnings of this ending is provided by Alfred, who, at Wayne’s apparent burial, reads the last lines from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some reviewers took this as an indication that, in O’Neil’s words, the film “rises to the noblest level of western art . . . The film appeals to the centre of America’s tradition – the ideal of noble sacrifice for the common people . . . An ultimate Christ-figure, Batman sacrifices himself to save others.”

Seen from this perspective, the storyline is a short step back from Dickens to Christ at Calvary. But isn’t the idea of Batman’s sacrifice as a repetition of Christ’s death not compromised by the film’s last scene (Wayne with Selina in the café)? Is the religious counterpart of this ending not, instead, the well-known blasphemous idea that Christ survived his crucifixion and lived a long, peaceful life in India or, as some sources have it, Tibet? The only way to redeem this final scene would be to read it as a daydream or hallucination of Alfred’s.

A further Dickensian feature of the film is a depoliticised complaint about the gap between rich and poor. Early in the film, Selina whispers to Wayne as they are dancing at an exclusive, upper-class gala: “A storm is coming, Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Nolan, like any good liberal, is “worried” about the disparity and has said that this worry permeates the film: “The notion of economic fairness creeps into the film . . . I don’t feel there’s a left or right perspective in the film. What is there is just an honest assessment or honest exploration of the world we live in – things that worry us.”

Although viewers know Wayne is mega-rich, they often forget where his wealth comes from: arms manufacturing plus stock-market speculation, which is why Bane’s games on the stock exchange can destroy his empire. Arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the Batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist (Stryver, as in Dickens). As Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, who co-wrote the screenplay, has said: “A Tale of Two Cities, to me, was the most . . . harrowing portrait of a relatable, recognisable civilisation that had completely fallen to pieces. You look at the Terror in Paris, in France in that period, and it’s hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.” The scenes of the vengeful populist uprising in the film (a mob that thirsts for the blood of the rich who have neglected and exploited them) evoke Dickens’s description of the Reign of Terror, so that, although the film has nothing to do with politics, it follows Dickens’s novel in “honestly” portraying revolutionaries as possessed fanatics.

The good terrorist

An interesting thing about Bane is that the source of his revolutionary hardness is unconditional love. In one touching scene, he tells Wayne how, in an act of love amid terrible suffering, he saved the child Talia, not caring about the consequences and paying a terrible price for it (Bane was beaten to within an inch of his life while defending her).
Another critic, R M Karthick, locates The Dark Knight Rises in a long tradition stretching from Christ to Che Guevara which extols violence as a “work of love”, as Che does in his diary:

Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.

What we encounter here is not so much the “christification of Che” but rather a “che­isation” of Christ – the Christ whose “scandalous” words from Luke (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple”) point in the same direction as these ones from Che: “You may have to be tough but do not lose your tenderness.” The statement that “the true revolutionary is guided by a strong feeling of love” should be read together with Guevara’s much more problematic description of revolutionaries as “killing machines”:

Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.

Guevara here is paraphrasing Christ’s declarations on the unity of love and the sword – in both cases, the underlying paradox is that what makes love angelic, what elevates it over mere sentimentality, is its cruelty, its link with violence. And it is this link that places love beyond the natural limitations of man and thus transforms it into an unconditional drive. This is why, to turn back to The Dark Knight Rises, the only authentic love portrayed in the film is Bane’s, the terrorist’s, in clear contrast to Batman’s.

The figure of Ra’s, Talia’s father, also deserves a closer look. Ra’s has a mixture of Arab and oriental features and is an agent of virtuous terror, fighting to correct a corrupted western civilisation. He is played by Liam Neeson, an actor whose screen persona usually radiates dignified goodness and wisdom – he is Zeus in Clash of the Titans and also plays Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, the first episode of the Star Wars series. Qui-Gon is a Jedi knight, the mentor of Obi-Wan Kenobi as well as the one who discovers Anakin Skywalker, believing that Anakin is the chosen one who will restore the balance of the universe, and ignores Yoda’s warnings about Anakin’s unstable nature. At the end of The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon is killed by the assassin Darth Maul.

In the Batman trilogy, Ra’s is the teacher of the young Wayne. In Batman Begins, he finds him in a prison in Bhutan. Introducing himself as Henri Ducard, he offers the boy a “path”. After Wayne is freed, he climbs to the home of the League of Shadows where Ra’s is waiting. At the end of a lengthy and painful period of training, Ra’s explains that Wayne must do what is necessary to fight evil, and that the league has trained Wayne to lead it in its mission to destroy Gotham City, which the league believes has become hopelessly corrupt.

Ra’s is thus not a simple embodiment of evil. He stands for the combination of virtue and terror, for egalitarian discipline fighting a corrupted empire, and thus belongs to a line that stretches in recent fiction from Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert’s Dune to Leonidas in Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. It is crucial that Wayne was a disciple of Ra’s: Wayne was made into Batman by his mentor.

At this point, two common-sense objections suggest themselves. The first is that there were monstrous mass killings and violence in real-life revolutions, from the rise of Stalin to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, so the film is clearly not just engaging in reactionary imagination. The second objection is that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent – its goal was definitely not a new Reign of Terror. In so far as Bane’s revolt is supposed to extrapolate the immanent tendency of OWS, the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies. The ongoing anti-capitalist protests are the opposite of Bane: he stands for the mirror image of state terror, for a murderous fundamentalism that takes over and rules by fear, not for the overcoming of state power through popular self-organisation. What both objections share, however, is the rejection of the figure of Bane.

The reply to these two objections has several parts. First, one should make the scope of violence clear. The best answer to the claim that the violent mob reaction to oppression is worse than the original oppression was the one provided by Mark Twain in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

There were two “Reigns of Terror” if we would remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood . . . Our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak, whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? . . . A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror, that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror, which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Then, one should demystify the problem of violence, rejecting simplistic claims that 20th- century communism used too much extreme murderous violence. We should be careful not to fall into this trap again. As a fact, this is terrifyingly true. Yet such a direct focus on violence obfuscates the underlying question: what was wrong with the communist project as such? What internal weakness of that project was it that pushed communists towards unrestrained violence? It is not enough to say that communists neglected the “problem of violence”; it was a deeper, sociopolitical failure that pushed them to violence. It is thus not only Nolan’s film that is unable to imagine authentic people’s power. The “real” radical-emancipatory movements couldn’t do it, either; they remained caught in the co-ordinates of the old society, in which actual “people power” was often such a violent horror.

Finally, it is all too simplistic to claim that there is no violent potential in OWS and similar movements – there is a violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process. The problem withThe Dark Knight Rises is that it has wrongly translated this violence into murderous terror. Let us take a brief detour here through José Saramago’s novel Seeing, which tells the story of strange events in the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country. When election day dawns with torrential rain, the voter turnout is disturbingly low. But the weather turns by mid-afternoon and the population heads en masse to the polling stations. The government’s relief is short-lived, however: the count shows that more than 70 per cent of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled, the government gives the people a chance to make amends a week later at another election.

The results are worse. Now 83 per cent of the ballots are blank. The two major political parties – the ruling party of the right and its chief adversary, the party of the middle – are in a panic, while the marginalised party of the left produces an analysis claiming that the blank ballots are a vote for its progressive agenda. Unsure how to respond to a benign protest but certain that an anti-democratic conspiracy is afoot, the government quickly labels the movement “terrorism, pure and unadulterated” and declares a state of emergency.

Citizens are seized at random and disappear into secret interrogation sites; the police and seat of government are withdrawn from the capital; all entrances to the city are sealed, as are the exits. The city continues to function almost normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government’s thrusts in unison and with a Gandhian level of non-violent resistance. This, the voters’ abstention, is a case of authentically radical “divine violence” that prompts panic reactions from those in power.

Back to Nolan. The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic. In Batman Begins, the hero remains within the constraints of a liberal order: the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. The Dark Knight is, in effect, a new version of two John Ford western classics, Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show how, to civilise the Wild West, one has to “print the legend” and ignore the truth. They show, in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.

In Batman Begins, the hero is simply the classic urban vigilante who punishes the criminals when the police can’t. The problem is that the police, the official law-enforcement agency, respond ambivalently to Batman’s help. They see him as a threat to their monopoly on power and therefore as evidence of their inefficiency. However, his transgression here is purely formal: it lies in acting on behalf of the law without being legitimised to do so. In his acts, he never violates the law. The Dark Knight changes these co-ordinates. Batman’s true rival is not his ostensible opponent, the Joker, but Harvey Dent, the “white knight”, the aggressive new district attorney, a kind of official vigilante whose fanatical battle against crime leads to the killing of innocent people and ultimately destroys him. It is as if Dent were the legal order’s reply to the threat posed by Batman: against Batman’s vigilantism, the system generates its own illegal excess in a vigilante much more violent than Batman.

There is poetic justice, therefore, when Wayne plans to reveal his identity as Batman and Dent jumps in and names himself as Batman – he is more Batman than Batman, actualising the temptation to break the law that Wayne was able to resist. When, at the end of the film, Batman assumes responsibility for the crimes committed by Dent to save the reputation of the popular hero who embodies hope for ordinary people, his act is a gesture of symbolic exchange: first Dent takes upon himself the identity of Batman, then Wayne – the real Batman – takes Dent’s crimes upon himself.

The Dark Knight Rises pushes things even further. Is Bane not Dent taken to an extreme? Dent draws the conclusion that the system is unjust, so that, to fight injustice effectively, one has to turn directly against the system and destroy it. Dent loses his remaining inhibitions and is ready to use all manner of methods to achieve this goal. The rise of such a figure changes things entirely. For all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with a popular uprising.
Should the film be rejected by those engaged in emancipatory struggles? Things aren’t quite so simple. We should approach the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem. Absences and surprising presences count. Recall the old French story about a wife who complains that her husband’s best friend is making illicit sexual advances towards her. It takes some time until the surprised friend gets the point: in this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her. It is like the Freudian unconscious that knows no negation; what matters is not a negative judgement of something but that this something is mentioned at all. In The Dark Knight Rises, people power is here, staged as an event, in a significant development from the usual Batman opponents (criminal mega-capitalists, gangsters and terrorists).

Strange attraction

The prospect of the Occupy Wall Street movement taking power and establishing a people’s democracy on the island of Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly unrealistic, that one cannot avoid asking the following question – why does a Hollywood blockbuster dream about it? Why does it evoke this spectre? Why does it even fantasise about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer – that it does so to taint OWS with the accusation that it harbours a terrorist or totalitarian potential – is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by the prospect of “people power”. No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent; no details are given about how the people power functions or what the mobilised people are doing. Bane tells the people they can do what they want – he is not imposing his own order on them. This is why external critique of the film (claiming that its depiction of OWS is a ridi­culous caricature) is not enough. The critique has to be immanent; it has to locate inside the film a multitude of signs that point towards the authentic event. (Recall, for instance, that Bane is not just a bloodthirsty terrorist but a person of deep love, with a spirit of sacrifice.)

In short, pure ideology isn’t possible. Bane’s authenticity has to leave traces in the film’s texture. This is why The Dark Knight Rises deserves close reading. The event – the “People’s Republic of Gotham City”, a dictatorship of the proletariat in Manhattan – is immanent to the film. It is its absent centre.

Slavoj Žižek’s latest book is “Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism” (Verso, £50)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Worth Reading Again

Divine Violence and Liberated Territories:
SOFT TARGETS talks with Slavoj ŽIŽEK

Los Angeles, March 14, 2007

ST: Let’s start with the question of violence. What, today, is the relation between violence and politics?

ŽIŽEK:  This question is particularly confused on the Left. Let’s take the use made of two authors, Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, for example. I don’t have any problem with Schmitt. But Schmitt’s concepts of "decision" and "exception" function precisely to erase the crucial distinction governing Benjamin’s "Critique of Violence," namely the distinction between "mythical" and "divine" violence. For Schmitt, to put it quite simply, there is no divine violence. For him there is an illegal violence that is a foundation, a violence of the exception that gives rise to the law. Many Leftists who flirt with Benjamin want to speak of some "spectral" violence that never really happens, or they adopt an attitude like Agamben’s and simply wait for some magical intervention. I’m sorry, but Benjamin is pretty precise. An example he gives of divine violence is a mob lynching a corrupt ruler! That’s pretty concrete. In a new book I’m writing on violence, I’m going to address this issue. Franz Fanon has suffered a similar fate. He was very clear about the role of violence, and he certainly wasn’t speaking of some "transcendental" violence. He meant killing, he meant terror. But this dimension of their work is not present in contemporary commentators. We have a softened, "decaffeinated" Fanon and Benjamin.

ST: It is not for nothing that Sorel is the fundamental reference for Benjamin! This is completely effaced in Agamben’s discussion of the text. When discussing divine violence in recent texts, you tend to refer to events like the uprisings of the Brazilian favelas and the slums of Caracas rather than the antiglobalization movement and its theorists. The example you yourself provide for "divine" violence, in a recent text on Robespierre, are the "food riots" in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 1990s . . . Do these upheavals bear witness to the emergence of a new "subject" of struggles to come? In making this identification, doesn’t one risk the "populist" temptation you elsewhere denounce?

ŽIŽEK:  I was in Brazil during the food riots. People from the favelas simply descended into the city and began to loot, to terrorize the middle classes a little bit. I was shocked at how these events were treated. At first, people were horrified, as if it came from nowhere, a divine catastrophe. But once the police took care of the situation, the burnt stores and so on were treated like one more tourist attraction! But violence is a complex phenomenon, and several things have to be taken into account. First of all, we have to emphasize that violence is always a structural problem, an "objective" feature of contemporary capitalist societies. Today, we are fascinated by what I, following Badiou, call "subjective" violence, with an easily identifiable agent. Balibar has developed the idea, itself found in the Marxist tradition more generally, of a basic, structural violence in the functioning of capitalism itself. It is absolutely necessary to read explosions of subjective violence against this structural or objective violence. We shouldn’t focus exclusively on the subjective dimension. And we should also remember that violence is not necessarily activity, action. It is not always the case that social functions run by themselves and that it takes a lot of energy, a lot of violence to transform them. To the contrary, it often takes a lot of violence to make sure things stay the way they are. Sometimes, then, the truly violent act is doing nothing, a refusal to act.

ST: The general strike?

ŽIŽEK:  Yes, you can say that. But the problem is how to actualize it today. In any case, there are moments when the radical gesture is to do nothing. The question is, as always, that of temporality, of timing. But, look: the real problem is that it is very difficult to be truly violent. The violence of real transformation. The task of the revolutionary is indeed to be violent, but also to avoid the type of violence that is, in fact, merely an impotent passage à l’acte. Often, the most brutal explosions of violence are admissions of impotence—even of a fear before the real act. Stalin, in a way, was much more violent than Hitler, for example. I’m speaking of the collectivization—this was madness. This was the true revolution. I don’t necessarily support it, but it’s true. I don’t buy the old Trotskyist equation, Lenin=revolution, Stalin=Thermidor. Maybe in 1933 or 1934. In 1928 or 1929, we saw the most radical change imaginable. Think about it: the peasantry made up 80 percent of the Russian population at the time. He truly wanted to break the peasants. It failed. But that was true violence. If by violence you mean, then, changing the basic social infrastructure, the fundamental relations of society, it’s very difficult. All the explosions of 20th century violence, whatever their differences, represent failures on this level. As for Sorel and the general strike, I am sympathetic on some level, but the major problem is that it is a little too close to what might be called an "aestheticist" explosion of freedom. For me, the true problem of revolution is not taking power; it’s what you do the day after. How you rearticulate everyday life. Here Stalin failed. By 1933 or 1934, no one talked about the creation of a "New Man" and so on.

ST: How do you understand, within this framework, the violence of the French banlieues? You mentioned, for example, the favelas and the food riots...

ŽIŽEK:  It obviously has nothing to do with what people like Alain Finkelkraut propose, that it’s an Islamist attack on the French republic and so on. The first thing they burned was the mosques. That’s why the fundamentalists were the first to raise their voices against the revolts. The young people of the banlieue simply wanted to say (to adopt a slogan from Badiou): we are here, and we are from here. It was a question of asserting their sheer existence. It was a pure demand for visibility. This is the best example of the limitations of our much-vaunted democracy. There are enormous numbers of people who find themselves in a situation where their most essential demands cannot be formulated in the language of a political problem. It’s what Roman Jakobson called "phatic" communication—not, "I want this" but simply, "here I am."

ST: You often insist, in a very polemical way, on the need to maintain the Marxist categories of class analysis. But when we speak of the favelas, the banlieues, the slums, aren’t we speaking of new social and political forces that indicate the limits of Marx’s categories? Given the fragmentation and complexity of the political at the global level, is it still possible to use the categories of "class" and class struggle to describe the current situation and its antagonisms? Couldn’t we argue that the use of the categories today represents a certain refusal to address the specificity of the "concrete situation"?

ŽIŽEK:  I see your point. The way I try to squeeze out of this problem is to redefine the concept of the proletariat in a way similar to Badiou and Rancière: those who stand for a universal singularity, those who belong to a situation without having a specific "place" in the situation, included but without any part in the social edifice. As such, this excluded non-part stands for the universal. The concept of the proletariat becomes a shifting category. But how can this be linked to the problems of political economy? This is a huge problem. I don’t have a real solution. Are we supposed to abandon the labor theory of value, or redeem it? People as different as Badiou and Fredric Jameson claim we already know how capitalism works, and that the real issue is the invention of new political forms. I don’t think we really know how capitalism functions today. The entire Marxist conceptual structure is based on the notion of exploitation. How does this concept function today? I don’t have an answer. All the terms used to describe the contemporary moment—"post-industrial society," "information society," "risk society" and so on—are completely journalistic categories.

ST: But doesn’t your redefinition of "proletariat" distance it too quickly from the question of production? Don’t we have to begin by examining the redefinition of productive labor itself, to analyze the increasingly unstable categories of productive and unproductive labor, employed and unemployed and so on? Doesn’t a term like "multitude," for example, at least indicate this instability?

ŽIŽEK:  This is where things become perplexing for me. The problems you mention are important. But there is, of course, an economy specific to the slums and the banlieue, an illegal market that is nevertheless extremely "dynamic," without any regulations and so on...

ST: Pure neoliberalism?

ŽIŽEK:  Yes. And so we shouldn’t forget, then, that even if the favelas are outside direct state control, they are still integrated into the mechanisms of the economy. More interesting than the question of productivity and unproductivity is the question of how certain economic forces both do not exist and yet are fully integrated into the networks of capital. Just look at the economy of the newly "liberated" Afghanistan—it’s finally integrated into the world market, though of course the most important product is opium. But let us return to the question of the multitude. It’s a very ambiguous category. Contemporary capitalism seems to have the same "predicates" as what Negri calls the "multitude." In Brazil, Negri recently claimed that we no longer even have to struggle against capitalism, that it’s almost already communism. This is also a question of the State. I’m becoming skeptical of the Leftist anti-State logic. It will not go unnoticed that this discourse finds an echo on the Right as well. Moreover, I don’t see any signs of the so-called "disappearance of the State." To the contrary. And to take the United States as an example, I have to confess that 80 percent of the time, when there is a conflict between civil society and the State, I am on the side of the State. Most of the time, the State must intervene when some local right-wing groups want to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, and so on. I think it’s very important, then, for the Left to influence and use, and perhaps even seize, when possible, State apparatuses. This is not sufficient unto itself, of course. In fact, I think we need to oppose the language of "ligne de fuite" and self-organization and so on with something that is completely taboo on the Left today—like garlic for the vampire—namely, the idea of large State or even larger collective decisions. It’s the same with the notion of "deterritorialization": I’ve even begun to think that we should rehabilitate the notion of "territory." Peter Hallward gave me this idea. Almost all the conflicts of our time, especially in the Middle East, are structured by the question of territory. I think the Left should begin to think in terms of what could be called "liberated territories."

ST: But when Negri and Hardt use the term "deterritorialization," don’t they mean something very specific, namely that the difference between productive and unproductive labor has become increasingly unclear, and therefore that the site of exploitation is no longer localized, but disseminated across the social surface—the entire space of society is politicized, and no longer simply the factory?

ŽIŽEK:  Let’s start with Negri and Hardt. Somewhere in the middle of Multitude, there is an intermezzo on Bakhtin and carnival. I violently disagree with this carnivalesque vision of liberation. Carnival is a very ambiguous term, more often than not used by reactionaries. My God, if you need a carnival, today’s capitalism is a carnival. A KKK lynching is a carnival. A cultural critic, a friend of mine, Boris Groys, told me that he did some research on Bakhtin and that it became clear that when Bakhtin was producing his theory of carnival in the 1930s, it was the Stalinist purges that were his model: today you are on the Central Committee, tomorrow . . . With the dynamics of contemporary capitalism, the opposition between rigid State control and carnivalesque liberation is no longer functional. Here I agree with what Badiou said in the recent interview with you published in Il Manifesto: "those who have nothing have only their discipline." This is why I like to mockingly designate myself "Left-fascist" or whatever! Today, the language of transgression is the ruling ideology. We have to reappropriate the language of discipline, of mass discipline, even the "spirit of sacrifice," and so on. We have to do away with the liberal fear of "discipline," which they characterize—without knowing what they’re talking about—as "proto-fascist." But back to Negri. You know, the Left produces a new model every ten years or so. Why was Ernesto Laclau’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy so popular twenty years ago? It suited a moment when the priority of class struggle gave way to the linking of particular struggles (feminist, etc.) in a chain of struggles. Now, Laclau is trying to dust off the theory to fit the new Latin American populism of Chavez, Morales and so on. Negri, I’m afraid, did capture a certain moment, that of Porto Alegre and the antiglobalization movement—that was, de facto, his "base." But what is problematic for me is his theory that if today the very object of production is the production of social relations themselves, then the way is open to what he calls "absolute democracy." I totally reject this logic. It is pure, ideological dreaming. In the final twenty pages of Multitude, the position is more or less theological—the tropes of "ligne de fuite" and resistance and so on are all founded on the fantasy of a "collapse" of Empire. In a way, it is the "optimistic" mirror image of the model you find in someone like Agamben, who presents not so much a pessimism but a "negative" teleology, in which the entire Western tradition is approaching its own disastrous end, the only solution to which is to await some "divine violence." But what is Benjamin talking about? Revolution—that is, a moment when you take the "sovereign" (this is Benjamin’s word) responsibility for killing someone. What does violence mean for Agamben? He responds with "playing with the law" and so on. Forgive me for being a vulgar empiricist, but I don’t know what that means in the concrete sense.

ST: You mentioned "liberated territories"—isn’t the first example that comes to mind the southern zone of Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut? Isn’t it possible to conceive of a phenomenon like Hezbollah not simply as a theologico-political form of communitarian organization but as a phenomenon of resistance irreducible to its theological support? Isn’t this the theoretical task for us, rather than characterizing this phenomenon, as is common on both the Left and the Right, as simply "obscurantist"?

ŽIŽEK:  This is really a matter of concrete judgment. I’ll ask you, quite naively: where do you see this dimension? I would like to be convinced. It’s quite fashionable to speak of self-organization, to say of Hamas or Hezbollah that "it’s not only rockets, there’s the social services, etc." But, look, every fascist regime does such things. It’s not enough. I think the Iranian revolution, for example, was a true event. There it’s clear. Of course, what you see today in Iran is a conservative populist regime buying off the poor with oil money. I have nothing against Islam as such, and in the Iranian revolution it is quite clear that it played a crucial role, but it was an Islam effectively linked to a Leftist position of social upheaval. It’s quite clear that, in the history of this revolution, it took around two years for the conservatives to take control. Again, I don’t have a problem with Islam as such. I think it is potentially a great emancipatory religion. It originally defined itself as a non-patriarchal religion, for example. I have written on this. Badiou spoke in the recent interview in Il Manifesto of a new form of organization outside the logic of the State and the Party—but what if you see this as a negative phenomenon, as a radical closure of social space? What kind of social space is being proposed? It’s important not to drift too far away from Marx here and his definition of the proletariat as a "substanceless subjectivity." This is essential. So if this form of organization belongs neither to the State or the Party, isn’t this because it represents a totalization of social space, something pre-modern . . .

ST: . . .an anti-modern reaction to the State?

ŽIŽEK:  Yes, yes. I don’t care about the social services and so on. The question is: when it is a question of workers, of women, and so on, where do you see any promise of emancipation? It’s not a rhetorical question. I want to see it, and I don’t. The big question for me—and here I am an unashamed Eurocentrist—is the political solution in Palestine, namely the necessity of a single, secular state. Is the goal of Hezbollah or Hamas a single, secular state, or not? I totally support the Palestinian cause, and even Palestinian "terror," provided it is publicly oriented toward a single, secular state. The option proposed by Hamas and Hezbollah is not a single secular state, but the destruction of Israel, driving the Jews "into the sea." I don’t buy the anti-imperialist solidarity with these forces.

ST: A final question. "That which produces the general good is always terrible": to what extent do you identify with this formula of Saint-Just’s? In what sense is the reinvention of a "new form of Terror," to put it in your terms, a necessary condition for a contemporary emancipatory politics?

ŽIŽEK:  I think the French Revolution, this violent explosion of egalitarian terror, is crucial. Before, terror simply meant the "mob" erupting in violence, but they don’t take over—they simply kill. I am speaking of the Jacobin Terror. This is the key event. You either buy it or you don’t.

The World's Only Reliable News

Here’s 36 signs from around our great planet.  Which ones do you think is worthy to earn the title,  SIGN OF THE YEAR?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nuit Blanche, Toronto, Sept. 2012

Toronto Celebrates the Apocalypse with Nuit Blanche 2012

2012's edition of Nuit Blanche explores themes of destruction, revision, and renewal.

Curated events: Dundas to Front streets, between Jarvis and Spadina
Independent projects: St. Clair Avenue to the waterfront, Roncesvalles Avenue to the Distillery District
September 29, 7:03 p.m. until dawn


Perhaps most the most exciting announcement related to a project called Symposium—Until the End of the World, a symposium and film screening that will be held at City Hall. Featuring speakers Arthur Kroker, Brenda Longfellow, and Slavoj Žižek, the event will consider the profound economic and environmental issues confronting the planet. Sara Diamond, OCAD University president and chair of the Nuit Blanche Artistic Advisory Committee, made no secret of the fact that Žižek’s appearance felt like a feather in her curatorial cap. “I’ve been tying to get him here since I arrived at OCAD,” she said, beaming.


37th Toronto International Film Festival “Mavericks” Program

The Toronto International Film Festival® presents a stellar lineup of notable newsmakers in this year’s Mavericks lineup, inviting audiences into intimate discussions with leaders in the film industry and beyond. Chronicling anecdotes and engaging in revealing conversations about their latest projects, guests in attendance include filmmakers Amy Berg, Tom Donahue, Sophie Fiennes, Kyle Humphrey, Susan Lacy, Álvaro Longoria and Graydon Sheppard; actors Javier Bardem, Jackie Chan, Johnny Depp, and Danny Glover; producers Damien Echols and Lorri Davis; media mogul David Geffen, philosopher Slavoj Žižek, musician Natalie Maines and casting director Ellen Lewis.
“Daring filmmakers, philanthropic trailblazers, political activists and provocative storytellers fill the diverse slate of talent in this year’s programme,” said Thom Powers, Toronto International Film Festival Mavericks Programmer. “The Festival’s Mavericks sessions offer audiences a rare experience into the minds of these creative leaders and a fascinating glimpse into their remarkable stories.”


The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Depending on one’s view, the philosopher and academic superstar Slavoj Žižek is a genius, madman, contrarian, clown, sensationalist, radical leftist, scourge of liberals, or all the above. What he never fails to be is wildly entertaining and provocative. Director Sophie Fiennes reunites with the very funny provocateur Žižek for the sequel to their collaboration The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Žižek examines film clips, both famous and obscure, for their overt and hidden ideological implications, tracing their connections to current times, while Fiennes does a masterful job editing Žižek’s commentary into film scenes and placing him into clever recreations of famous film sets. Fiennes and Žižek (making his first visit to the Festival) will engage in an onstage discussion following this world premiere screening.


Monday, August 20, 2012

In Russia

UPDATE 1-Russian police pursuing other members of Pussy Riot

Pressure kept up despite outcry over jailing of 3 members

Russian FM dismisses Western criticism as "hysterics"

By Steve Gutterman and Alissa de Carbonnel

MOSCOW, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Russian police are hunting for more members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band, a spokeswoman said, signalling further pressure on the group despite an international outcry over jail terms for three women who protested in a church against Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president's critics condemned the court proceeding that yielded the two-year prison sentences on Friday as part of a clampdown on a protest movement and reminiscent of show trials of dissidents in the Soviet era.

Police said on Monday they were searching for other members of the group over the February protest at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral, but had not yet identified the suspects.

They did not say how many people they were looking for, nor whether they faced arrest and charges. Five members of the anonymous feminist punk group stormed the church altar in brightly coloured balaclavas, mismatched dresses and wielding an electric guitar, but only three were arrested and tried.

Although the search was launched before Friday's verdict, the determination of police to pursue other Pussy Riot members suggested the Kremlin would keep the heat on the band despite the furore over the punishment imposed on the three young women.

A lawyer for Pussy Riot, Mark Feigin, said he believed police knew the identity of the other two women and had video surveillance footage of them walking into the church.
He said the search handed police a tool to put pressure on any of Pussy Riot's 10 plus members continuing its protest. "If you put some unidentified persons on the wanted list, then you can arrest whoever you want in a balaclava," he said.

In an interview last week, other members of Pussy Riot - their faces hidden behind colourful masks like those worn during the "punk prayer" - said the trial had only strengthened their resolve to stage new protests.

On Friday, the band released a new song entitled "Putin is Lighting the Fires of Revolution."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred over their performance of a "punk prayer" urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.

A police spokeswoman said other unidentified members of Pussy Riot were being sought under a criminal case that was now separate from that against the three performers who were tried.


Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, said Pussy Riot members remaining at large want "normal lives" and painted the police statement as part of a wider Kremlin crackdown on opponents who hope to stage mass street protests in the autumn.
"Putin likes the taste of repression," he told Reuters.

Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich said they had sought to protest against Putin's close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and had not set out to offend believers.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, whose works are being read by Samutsevich in jail, said the trial showed Russia's system of power was "immensely fragile" and likened Pussy Riot to dissident poets in the era of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

"The greatest appreciation for poetry in Stalinism was that you could have been shot for a poem," Zizek said in Moscow.

The United States, European Union and several nations have called the sentences disproportionate, and Washington has urged Russian authorities to "review" the case.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asked about the Western criticism, warned against interference in judicial affairs and said people should not "go into hysterics" about the case. He denied accusations that the trial was politically motivated and said the women could still appeal.

"Let's not draw hasty conclusions or go into hysterics."


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Adrian Johnston: Naturalism or anti-naturalism? No, thanks–both are worse!’

The Apostate Children Of God

Ambedkar knew that there would be outcasts as long as there are castes

The Laws of Manu is one of the most exemplary texts of ideology in the entire history of humanity. The first reason is that while its ideology encompasses the entire universe, inclusive of its mythic origins, it focuses on everyday practices as the immediate materiality of ideology: how (what, where, with whom, when…) we eat, defecate, have sex, walk, enter a building, work, make war, etc. The second reason is that the book stages a radical shift with regard to its starting point (presupposition): the ancient code of Veda. What we find in Veda is the brutal cosmology based on killing and eating: higher things kill and eat/consume lower ones, stronger eat weaker, i.e., life is a zero-sum game where one’s victory is another’s defeat. The “great chain of being” appears here as founded in the “food chain,” the great chain of eating: gods eat mortal humans, humans eat mammals, mammals eat lesser animals who eat plants, plants “eat” water and earth… such is the eternal cycle of being. So why does then Veda claim that at the top of society are not warriors-kings stronger than all other humans, “eating” them all, but the caste of priests? Here, the ideological ingenuity of Veda enters the stage: the function of the priests is to prevent the first, highest, level of cosmic eating: the eating of human mortals by gods. How? By way of performing sacrificial rituals. Gods must be appeased, their hunger for blood must be satisfied, and the trick of the priests is to offer gods a substitute (symbolic) sacrifice: an animal or other prescribed food instead of human life. The sacrifice is needed not for any special favours from gods, but to make it sure that the wheel of life goes on turning. Priests perform a function which concerns the balance of the entire universe: if gods remain hungry, the whole cycle of cosmic life is disturbed.

From the very beginning, the “holistic” notion of the great chain of Being—whose reality is the brutal chain of stronger eating weaker—is thus based on deception: it is not a “natural” chain, but a chain based on an exception (humans who don’t want to be eaten), i.e., sacrifices are substitute insertions aimed at restoring the complete life cycle.
This was the first contract between ideologists (priests) and those in power (warriors-kings): the kings, who retain actual power (over life and death of other people) will recognize the formal superiority of the priests as the highest caste, and, in exchange for this appearance of superiority, the priests will legitimize the power of the warriors-kings as part of the natural cosmic order. Then, however, around the sixth and fifth century BCE, something took place, a radical “revaluation of all values” in the guise of the universalist backlash against this cosmic food chain: the ascetic rejection of this entire infernal machine of life reproducing itself through sacrifice and eating. The circle of food chain is now perceived as the circle of eternal suffering, and the only way to achieve piece is to exempt oneself from it. (With regard to food, this, of course, means vegetarianism: not eating killed animals.) From perpetuating time, we pass to the goal of entering the timeless Void. With this reversal from the life-affirming stance to the world-renunciation, comparable to the Christian reversal of the pagan universe, the highest values are no longer strength and fertility, but compassion, humility, and love. The very meaning of sacrifice changes with this reversal: we no longer sacrifice so that the infernal life-cycle goes on, but to get rid of the guilt for participating in this cycle.

What are the socio-political consequences of this reversal? How can we avoid the conclusion that the entire social hierarchy, grounded in the “great food chain” of eaters and those being eaten, should be suspended? It is here that the genius of The Laws of Manu shines: its basic ideological operation is to unite the hierarchy of castes and the ascetic world-renunciation by way of making the purity itself the criterion of one’s place in the caste hierarchy. As Wendy Doniger says in her introduction to this text,
“Vegetarianism was put forward as the only way to liberate oneself from the bonds of natural violence that adversely affected one’s karma. A concomitant of this new dietary practice was a social hierarchy governed to a large extent by the relative realization of the ideal of non-violence. The rank order of the social classes did not change. But the rationale for the ranking did.”

Vegetarian priests are at the top, as close as humanly possible to purity; they are followed by the warriors-kings who reality by dominating it and killing life — they are in a way the negative of the priests, i.e., they entertain towards the wheel of Life the same negative attitude like the priests, albeit in the aggressive/intervening mode. Then come the producers who provide food and other material conditions for life, and, finally, at the bottom, the outcasts whose main task is to deal with all kinds of excrements, the putrefying dead remainders of life (from cleaning the toilets to butchering animals and disposing of human bodies).

Since the two attitudes are ultimately incompatible, the task of their unification is an impossible one and can be achieved only by a complex panoply of tricks, displacements and compromises whose basic formula is that of universality with exceptions: ‘in principle yes, but…’ The Laws of Manu demonstrates a breath-taking ingenuity in accomplishing this task, with examples often coming dangerously close to the ridiculous.

For example, priests should study the Veda, not trade; in extremity, however, a priest can engage in trade, but he is not allowed to trade in certain things like sesame seed; if he does it, he can only do it in certain circumstances; finally, if he does it in the wrong circumstances, he will be reborn as a worm in dogshit…

In other words, the great lesson of The Laws of Manu is that the true regulating power of the law does not reside in its direct prohibitions, in the division of our acts into permitted and prohibited, but in regulating the very violations of prohibitions: the law silently accepts that the basic prohibitions are violated (or even discreetly solicits us to violate them), and then, once we find ourselves in this position of guilt, it tells us how to reconcile the violation with the law by way of violating the prohibition in a regulated way…

British colonial administration of India elevated The Laws of Manu into a privileged text to be used as a reference for establishing the legal code which would render possible the most efficient domination of India – up to a point, one can even say that The Laws of Manu only became the book of the Hindu tradition retroactively, chosen to stand for the tradition by the colonizers among a vast choice (the same as its obscene obverse, “tantra,” which was also systematized into a coherent dark, violent and dangerous cult by the British colonizers) – in all these cases, we are dealing with what Eric Hobsbawm called “invented traditions.” What this also implies is that the persistence of the phenomenon and social practice of the Untouchables is not simply a remainder of tradition: their number grew throughout the nineteenth century, with the spreading of cities which lacked proper canalization, so that the outcasts were needed to deal with dirt and excrements. At a more general level, one should thus reject the idea that globalization threatens local traditions, that it flattens differences: sometimes it threatens them, more often it keeps them alive, or resuscitates them by way of adapting them to new conditions – say, like the British and Spanish re-invented slavery.

With the formal prohibition of the discrimination of the Untouchables, their exclusion changed status and became the obscene supplement of the official/public order: publicly disavowed, it continues its subterranean existence. However, this subterranean existence is nonetheless formal (it concerns the subject’s symbolic title/status), which is why it does not follow the same logic as the well-known classic Marxist opposition of formal equality and actual inequality in the capitalist system: here, it is the inequality (the persistence of the hierarchic caste system) which is formal, while in their actual economic and legal life, individuals are in a way equal (a dalit today can also become rich, etc.).

The status of the caste hierarchy is here not the same as that of nobility in a bourgeois society, which is effectively irrelevant, just a feature which may add to the subject’s public glamour.

Exemplary is here the conflict between B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhi during the 1930s: although Gandhi was the first Hindu politician to advocate the full integration of the Untouchables, and called them “the children of god,” he perceived their exclusion as the result of the corruption of the original Hindu system. What Gandhi envisaged was rather the (formally) non-hierarchical order of castes within which each individual has his/her own allotted place: he emphasized the importance of scavenging and celebrated the Untouchables for performing this “sacred” mission. It is here that the Untouchables are exposed to the greatest ideological temptation: in a way which prefigures today’s “identity politics,” Gandhi is allowing them to “fall in love with themselves” in their humiliating identity, to accept their degrading work as a noble necessary social task, to perceive even the degrading nature of their work as a sign of their sacrifice, of their readiness to do the dirty job for society. Even his more “radical” injunction that everyone, Brahmin included, should clean his or her own shit, obfuscates the true issue, which is not that of our individual attitude, but of a global social nature. (The same ideological trick is performed today by injunctions which bombard us from all sides to recycle personal waste, to put bottles, newspapers, etc., in the appropriate separate bins… in this way, guilt and responsibility are personalized, it is not the entire organization of economy which is to blame, but our subjective attitude which should be changed.) The task is not to change our inner selves, but to abolish Untouchability as such, i.e., not as an element of the system, but the system itself which generates it. In contrast to Gandhi, Ambedkar saw this clearly when he, as Christophe Jaffrelot says, “underlined the futility of merely abolishing Untouchability: this evil being the product of a social hierarchy of a particular kind, it was the entire caste system that had to be eradicated: ‘There will be out castes /Untouchables/ as long as there are castes.’ … Gandhi responded that, on the contrary, here it was a question of the foundation of Hinduism, a civilization which, in its original form, in fact ignored hierarchy.”

In 1927, Ambedkar symbolically burnt a copy of the Manusmriti; Gandhi always held in his hand a copy of the Bhagvad Gita—a text that extolled the varna order in its originary four-fold form. Ambedkar mounted a severe critique of the Gita for being a counter-revolutionary defence of the caste order. The Gandhi-Ambedkar difference here is insurmountable: it is the difference between the “organic” solution (solving the problem by way of returning to the purity of the original non-corrupted system) and the truly radical solution (identifying the problem as the “symptom” of the entire system, the symptom which can only be resolved by way of abolishing the entire system). Ambedkar saw clearly how the structure of four castes, or the varna system, does not unite four elements which belong to the same order: while the first three castes (priests, warrior-kings, merchants-producers) form a consistent All, an organic triad, the Shudras (slaves) and Untouchables (outside the four-fold system) are like Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production” the “part of no part,” the inconsistent element which holds within the system the place of what the system as such excludes — and as such, the Untouchables stand for universality. Or, as Ambedkar’s put it in his ingenious wordplay: “There will be outcasts as long as there are castes.” As long as there are castes, there will be an excessive excremental zero-value element which, while formally part of the system, has no proper place within it. Gandhi obfuscates this paradox, as if harmonious structure is possible.