- Category: Theory
- Created on Sunday, 28 December 2008 10:00
- Written by Slavoj Zizek
This article appears online at lacan.com and is also available in video form. N3wday suggested posting it, saying there is value in examining Zizek’s “4 antagonisms” of capitalism that cannot be resolved under the system (ecology, private property, technological developments, and new forms of apartheid.) Part 1 was posted yesterday.
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"The problem is thus that we can rely neither on scientific mind nor on our common sense - they both mutually reinforce each other's blindness. The scientific mind advocates a cold objective appraisal of dangers and risks involved where no such appraisal is effectively possible, while common sense finds it hard to accept that a catastrophe can really occur. The difficult ethical task is thus to "un-learn" the most basic coordinates of our immersion into our life-world: what usually served as the recourse to Wisdom (the basic trust in the background-coordinates of our world) is now THE source of danger.
"One can learn even more from the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge - the expression, of course, refers to the well-known accident in March 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: 'There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.' What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the "unknown knowns," things we don't know that we know - which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn't know itself," as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the "unknown unknowns," the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the "unknown knowns," the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. In the case of ecology, these disavowed beliefs and suppositions are the ones which prevent us from really believing in the possibility of the catastrophe, and they combine with the "unknown unknowns." The situation is like that of the blind spot in our visual field: we do not see the gap, the picture appears continuous."
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Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses, Part 2
by Slavoj Zizek
The lesson to be fully endorsed is thus that of another environmental scientist who came to the result that, while one cannot be sure what the ultimate result of humanity's interventions into geo-sphere will be, one thing is sure: if humanity were to stop abruptly its immense industrial activity and let nature on Earth take its balanced course, the result would have been a total breakdown, an imaginable catastrophe. "Nature" on Earth is already to such an extent "adapted" to human interventions, the human "pollutions" are already to such an extent included into the shaky and fragile balance of the "natural" reproduction on Earth, that its cessation would cause a catastrophic imbalance. This is what it means that humanity has nowhere to retreat: not only "there is no big Other" (self-contained symbolic order as the ultimate guarantee of Meaning); there is also no Nature qua balanced order of self-reproduction whose homeostasis is disturbed, thrown off the rails, by the imbalanced human interventions. Indeed, what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.
Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is a vision of what would have happened if humanity (and ONLY humanity) were suddenly to disappear from the earth - natural diversity blooming again, nature gradually regaining human artefacts. We, humans, are reduced to a pure disembodied gaze observing our own absence. (As Lacan pointed out, this is the fundamental subjective position of fantasy: to be reduced to a, the gaze which observes the world in the condition of the subject's non-existence - like the fantasy of witnessing the act of one's own conception, the parental copulation, or the act of witnessing one's own burial, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. A jealous child likes to indulge in the fantasy of imagining how his parents would react to his own death, putting at stake his own absence.) "The world without us" is thus fantasy at its purest: witnessing the Earth itself retaining its pre-castrated state of innocence, before we humans spoiled it with our hubris. The irony is that the most prominent example comes from the catastrophe of Chernobyl: the exuberant nature taking over the disintegrating debris of the nearby city Pripyat which was abandoned, left the way it was.
Against this background, one should also render problematic Badiou's distinction between man qua mortal "human animal" and the "inhuman" subject as the agent of a Truth-procedure: man is pursuing happiness and pleasures, worrying about death, etc., it is an animal endowed with higher instruments to reach its goals, while only as a subject faithful to a Truth-Event does it truly raise above animality. The problem with this dualism is that it ignores Freud's basic lesson: there is no "human animal," a human being is from its birth (and even before) torn out of the animal constraints, its instincts are "denaturalized," caught in the circularity of the (death-)drive, functioning "beyond the pleasure principle," marked by the stigma of what Eric Santner called "undeadness" or the excess of life. This is why there is no place for "death drive" in Badiou's edifice, for the "distortion" of human animality which precedes fidelity to an Event. It is not only the "miracle" of a traumatic encounter with an Event which derails a human subject from its animality: its libido is already in itself derailed. One should thus turn around the usual criticism of Badiou: what is problematic is not the quasi-religious miracle of the Event, but the very "natural" order disturbed by the Event.
So, back to the prospect of ecological catastrophe, why do we not act? It is too short to attribute our disbelief in the catastrophe to the impregnation of our mind by scientific ideology, which leads us to dismiss the sane concerns of our common reason, i.e., the gut sense which tells us that something is fundamentally wrong with the scientific-technological attitude. The problem is much deeper, it resides in the unreliability of our common sense itself which, habituated as it is to our ordinary life-world, finds it difficult really to accept that the flow of everyday reality can be perturbed. Our attitude here is that of the fetishist split: "I know very well (that the global warming is a threat to the entire humanity), but nonetheless... (I cannot really believe it). It is enough to look at my environs to which my mind is wired: the green grass and trees, the whistle of the wind, the rising of the sun... can one really imagine that all this will be disturbed? You talk about the ozone hole - but no matter how much I look into the sky, I don't see it - all I see is the same sky, blue or grey!"
And therein resides the horror of the Chernobyl accident: when one visits the site, with the exception of the sarcophagus, things look exactly the same as before, life seems to have deserted the site, leaving everything the way it is, and nonetheless we are aware that something is terribly wrong. The change is not at the level of the visible reality itself, it is a more fundamental one, it affects the very texture of reality. No wonder there are some lone farmers around the Chernobyl site who continued to lead their lives as before - they simply ignore all the incomprehensible talk about radiations. Do these farmers not behave like the madman in the old joke circulating among Lacanians to exemplify the key role of the Other's knowledge: a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man; however, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back very trembling of scare - there is a chicken outside the door and that he is afraid that it would eat him. "Dear fellow," says his doctor, "you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man". "Of course I know that," replies the patient, "but does the chicken know it?" The chicken from the joke stands for the big Other which doesn't know. In the last years of Tito's life, he was effectively such a chicken: some archives and memoirs show that, already in the mid-1970s, the leading figures around Tito were aware that Yugoslavia's economic situation was catastrophic; however, since Tito was nearing his death, they made a collective decision to postpone the outbreak of a crisis till his death - the price was the fast accumulation of external debt in the last years of Tito's life. When, in 1980, Tito finally dies, the economic crisis did strike with revenge, leading to a 40 per cent fall of standard of living, to ethnic tensions and, finally, civil and ethnic war that destroyed the country - the moment to confront the crisis adequately was missed. One can thus say that what put the last nail in the coffin of Yugoslavia was the very attempt by its leading circle to protect the ignorance of the Leader, to keep his gaze happy.
Is this not what, ultimately, culture is? One of the elementary rules of culture is to know when (and how) to pretend NOT to know (or notice), to go on and act as if something which happened did not happen. When a person near me accidentally produces an unpleasant vulgar noise, the proper thing to do is to ignore it, not to comfort him: "I know it was an accident, don't worry, it doesn't really matter!" We should thus understand in the right way the joke about the chicken: a madman's question is a quite pertinent question in many everyday situations. When parents with a young child have affairs, fight and shout at each other, they as a rule (if they retain a minimum of decency) try to prevent the child to notice it, well aware that the child's knowledge would have had a devastating effect on him - so what they try to maintain is precisely a situation of "We know that we cheat and fight and shout, but the child/chicken doesn't know it." (Of course, in many cases, the child knows it very well, but merely feigns not to notice anything wrong, aware that in this way his parents' life is a little bit easier.) Or, at a less vulgar level, recall a parent in a difficult predicament (dying of cancer, in financial difficulties), but trying to keep this secret from his nearest and dearest...
And this is also our problem with ecology: we know it, but the chicken doesn't know it... The problem is thus that we can rely neither on scientific mind nor on our common sense - they both mutually reinforce each other's blindness. The scientific mind advocates a cold objective appraisal of dangers and risks involved where no such appraisal is effectively possible, while common sense finds it hard to accept that a catastrophe can really occur. The difficult ethical task is thus to "un-learn" the most basic coordinates of our immersion into our life-world: what usually served as the recourse to Wisdom (the basic trust in the background-coordinates of our world) is now THE source of danger.
One can learn even more from the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge - the expression, of course, refers to the well-known accident in March 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the "unknown knowns," things we don't know that we know - which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn't know itself," as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the "unknown unknowns," the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, what we should reply is that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the "unknown knowns," the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. In the case of ecology, these disavowed beliefs and suppositions are the ones which prevent us from really believing in the possibility of the catastrophe, and they combine with the "unknown unknowns." The situation is like that of the blind spot in our visual field: we do not see the gap, the picture appears continuous.
If the Freudian name for the "unknown known" is the Unconscious, the Freudian name for the "unknown unknowns" is TRAUMA, the violent intrusion of something radically unexpected, something the subject was absolutely not ready for, something the subject cannot integrate in any way. In her Les nouveaux blessés (The New Wounded), Catherine Malabou proposed a critical reformulation of psychoanalysis along these lines. Her starting point is the delicate echoing between internal and external Real in psychoanalysis: for Freud and Lacan, external shocks, brutal unexpected encounters or intrusions, due their properly traumatic impact to the way they touch a pre-existing traumatic "psychic reality." Malabou rereads along these lines Lacan's reading of the Freudian dream of "Father, can't you see I'm burning?" The contingent external encounter of the real (the candle collapses and inflames the cloth covering the dead child, and the smell of the smoke disturbs the father on a night-watch) triggers the true Real, the unbearable fantasy-apparition of the dead child reproaching his father. In this way, for Freud (and Lacan), every external trauma is "sublated," internalized, owing its impact to the way a pre-existing Real of the "psychic reality" is aroused through it. Even the most violent intrusions of the external real - say, the shocking effect on the victims of bomb-explosions in war - owe their traumatic effect to the resonance they find in perverse masochism, in death-drive, in unconscious guilt-feeling, etc. Today, however, our socio-political reality itself imposes multiple versions of external intrusions, traumas, which are just that, meaningless brutal interruptions that destroy the symbolic texture of subject's identity. First, there is the brutal external physical violence: terror attacks like 98/11, the US "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq, street violence, rapes, etc., but also natural catastrophes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.; then, there is the "irrational" (meaningless) destruction of the material base of our inner reality (brain-tumors, Alzheimer's disease, organic cerebral lesions, etc., which can utterly change, destroy even, the victim's personality; finally, there are the destructive effects of socio-symbolic violence (social exclusion, etc.). (Note how this triad echoes the triad of commons: the commons of external nature, of inner nature, of symbolic substance.) Basically, Malabou's reproach is that Freud himself succumbs here to the temptation of meaning: he is not ready to accept the direct destructive efficiency of external shocks - they destroy the psyche of the victim (or, at least, wound it in an unredeemable way) without resonating in any inner traumatic truth. It would be obviously obscene to link, say, the psychic devastation of a "Muslim" in a Nazi camp to his masochism, death-drive, or guilt feeling: a Muslim (or a victim of multiple rape, of brutal torture...) is not devastated by unconscious anxieties, but directly by a "meaningless" external shock which can in no way be hermeneutically appropriated/integrated.
For Freud, if external violence gets too strong, we simply exit the psychic domain proper: the choice is "either the shock is re-integrated into a pre-existing libidinal frame, or it destroys psyche and nothing is left." What he cannot envisage is that the victim as if were survives its own death: all different forms of traumatic encounters, independently of their specific nature (social, natural, biological, symbol...) lead to the same result - a new subject emerges which survives its own death, the death (erasure) of its symbolic identity. There is no continuity between this new "post-traumatic" subject (suffering Alzheimer's or other cerebral lesions, etc.): after the shock, literally a new subject emerges. Its features are well-known from numerous descriptions: lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment - it is a subject who is no longer "in-the-world" in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. This subject lives death as a form of life - his life is death-drive embodied, a life deprived of erotic engagement; and this holds for henchmen no less than for his victims. If the XXth century was the Freudian century, the century of libido, so that even the worst nightmares were read as (sado-masochist) vicissitudes of the libido, will the XXIst century be the century of such post-traumatic disengaged subjects whose first emblematic figure, that of the Muslim in concentration camps, is not multiplying in the guise of refugees, terror victims, survivors of natural catastrophes, of family violence...? The feature that runs through all these figures is that the cause of the catastrophe remains libidinally meaningless, resisting any interpretation.
The constellation is properly frustrating: although we (individual or collective agents) know that it all depends on us, we cannot ever predict the consequences of our acts - we are not impotent, but, quite on the contrary, omnipotent, without being able to determine the scope of our powers. The gap between causes and effects is irreducible, and there is no "big Other" to guarantee the harmony between the levels, to guarantee that the overall outcome of our interactions will be satisfactory. The problem is that, although our (sometimes even individual) acts can have catastrophic (ecological, etc.) consequences, the big Other prevents us from believing in it, from assuming this knowledge and responsibility: "Contrary to what the promoters of the principle of precaution think, the cause of our non-action is not the scientific uncertainty. We know it, but we cannot make ourselves believe in what we know." This situation confronts us with the deadlock of the contemporary "society of choice" at its most radical. In the standard situation of the forced choice (a situation in which I am free to choose on condition that I make the right choice, so that the only thing left for me to do is the empty gesture of pretending to accomplish freely what is in any case imposed on me). Here, on the contrary, the choice really is free and is, for this very reason, experienced as even more frustrating: we find ourselves constantly in the position of having to decide about matters that will fundamentally affect our lives, but without a proper foundation in knowledge - as John Gray put it: .