Mantra of the Apolitical: On Zizek and ‘Ramona’
November 7, 2011
Zizek’s mantra of the apolitical
For all his credentials as a theorist of social change Slavoj Zizeks’ uncanny take on the real culprit behind the capitalist debacle on managing a deepening crisis of global economy is like crapping out a game we thought he knew how to play and play better.
In his usual display of Marxist sensibility by quoting an ex-Maoist Alain Badiou, Zizek proudly claims that questions of political democracy are better left to the everyday non-discursive play of human freedom (Zizek described it as an “apolitical network of social relations”: see “Democracy is the Real Enemy,” London Review of Books, October 28, 2011), not to the political mechanisms of liberal capitalist democracy that ironical indeed encourages peaceful protests. Zizek observes: “Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation, or anything of the kind but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.”
Zizek is at lost here especially when he extended his observations on how the protesters of Occupy Wall Street can demand change from global capitalist system. To all likelihood Zizek wants the protesters to draw the fine line between illusion and a manageable phantasmagoric relation to the Real (the uncanny provenance of human freedom). The experience of this kind of freedom has a counterpart in Marxist literature, namely, ‘political democracy’. Zizek concludes his essay via a trademark recourse to his familiar Lacanian lens, warning the protesters not to demand the Real (as did, he argued, by the failed revolutionaries of May 1968 in France) for demanding even a taste of it is sure to fall into a trap disguised as enjoyment. Sure enough, the term he would have brandished though he must have realized it’s too omnipresent in his texts and speeches to call attention to, jouissance. Roughly speaking it means enjoying too much that enjoyment only strengthens the structural (social) and natural prohibition against its own expression.
By warning the protesters not to provoke the master (the global capitalist system) Zizek is arguing more or less that any unnecessary provocation can further deepen the crisis against which the protests were organized. For all its proverbial dependence on chaotic mode of production, capitalism cannot tolerate more disturbing protests. The most dangerous provocation lies in demanding a change of subjective space in the collective social domain between the master and the slave, between the 1 percent and the 99 percent relative to the income and wealth distribution pie. It must have occurred to Zizek that he sounds more Hegelian than Marxist especially in terms of his proximate warning against provoking another historical shift into nihilism where the only thing that changes is the subjective space, an extended internal time consciousness (realistically speaking, a ‘class’) inhabited and run by a triumphant subject-agency that has taken possession of a historical Geist, in the case of Zizek’s warning, the prospect of the working class or the 99 percent of the world’s population, discriminated by property ownership, keeping a tight rein on capital. But he sounds more Lacanian when he conclusively shifts his argument from caution to prescription: “the formal gesture of rejection…is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content.” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, there is no way one can acquire the full comforts of the Real in terms of positive enjoyment that does not in any way reincribe the Real in its very essence as unfulfillable as an object of human desire. But where does Zizek want to see the protests leading?
He takes up Lacan to remind the protesters not to demand real transformation (as hysterics always do) through changing the subjective position of the master into that of the triumphant slave, recalling Lacan’s words to the revolutionaries of May 1968: “As revolutionaries you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one” (Democracy is The Real Enemy).
Zizek fires a shot at proverbial Marxist slogans of direct empowerment (such as workers’ council, etc.) in terms of brandishing a totem called political democracy that has seen better days. Zizek warns us against believing that democracy in capitalism can offer opportunities for empowerment which Marxism, from the First International to Lenin, had taken advantage of in the interest of pursuing tactical goals for the working class though Marx and Lenin did not harbor any illusion that bourgeois democracy can put an end to the exploitative system of division of labor, property ownership and capital accumulation. Drawing on Louis Althusser the Slovenian thinker argues that bourgeois democracy is an integral part of the Ideological State Apparatuses, a type of public empowerment that guarantees freedom to own property and invest, and freedom to assemble and demand improvements of labor (at least in modern times), whereupon the tenacity of the new global capitalism rests. It suffices to say that the protesters themselves should make an effort to block the logical movement of history from political democracy (such as benefiting from higher wages, advantageous capital-labor compromises that help delay the pace of capitalist plunder of national and global economy, labor-related benefits, etc.) to direct ownership and control of the means of production, from capitalism to socialism. Zizek simply argues that any sense of freedom in capitalist order is false and illusory, that political democracy in capitalism is not historically transitory rather permanently inauspicious. More to the point, he argues against any sense of historical dialectics. History does not move. It is resistant to change.
But Zizek also argues that freedom can flourish within the “apolitical network of social relations,” outside of the sphere of the political, such as the family. Here, Zizek betrays his poor grasp of Marx. He believes that the family is impermeable to capital. The family plays an important role for Zizek, and unfortunately he likes to impress for Marxism as well—it ensures radical change needed to transform capitalism by transforming the ‘social relations of production’ which he mistakenly associates with the emancipatory apolitical promise of the family. But what family is he talking about? Is it the biological structure in which natural selection plays the game of the survival of the species or the modern social act of reproduction in the interest of one’s birthright, heirloom or legacy, defined by juridical terms of property ownership? None of these structures will satisfy the Zizekean alternative of the apolitical in terms of transforming the transcendent, that is, social relations of production precisely because these structures, the genetic and the social, are already inscribed within a specific economy which is always accompanied by the political as any potential to build and expand on a given material condition. It matters less if the political has been perfected by the human species: As long as there is culture pervasive in higher presumably reflexive life forms (which is rooted in self-preservation) the political is always a given possibility. The crux of the matter is that any effort to transcend the sociality of economic relations is bound to repeat the transcendentality of the political. This time it sounds totally deterministic.
But that is the closest thing to Zizek’s Lacanian hang-over (after taking an insufficient dose of Marxism, he must have gone on a free Lacanian binge). For Lacan the Real takes the place of the evolutionary bind which holds life hostage to the death instinct. Any sense of comfort that life takes in between is only a false illusion of freedom or enjoyment. But even that is suspect and Zizek should be the first one to deny that enjoyment (all the more, a false one) is attainable even in the synthetic landscape of experience where, if Kant was right, it is achievable by means of correct judgements. Nonetheless, it is also the ability to form correct judgement that Zizek to all appearances aimed to make a pitch for by warning the protesters of Wall Street not to demand the Master to relinquish his position. The best thing to do is to remain sufficiently hysteric, no more than that. That’s the correct judgement.
But let us give Zizek the benefit of doubt. Let us say he is imagining something close to the ancient understanding of social relations which flourished in friendship, in philia. But he can hardly be imagined imagining Plato, the Marxist that he claims himself to be, or the Lacanian that stands for his credentials (his mastery of the case studies and clinical experiences of Lacan who did a Humean trick to him, who awakened him from his Marxist slumber, the Lacan who had a very low opinion of philosophy as meaningless sophistry).
What can we still imagine of Zizek imagining he is a Marxist?
Surprisingly, this leads us to Ramona Bautista, named co-conspirator to the gruesome murder of his brother Ramgen Bautista apparently in a conflict over monetary support.
Ramona and her Zizekean alibis
We mean a Zizekean alibi as the pitch for truth and nothing but the truth. But there is more to that. Zizek, for all his twist and turn as a Marxist, a Leninist and a Lacanian, has come to embody an alibi best suited for a defense before the bar of public opinion. The alibi, as we had mentioned earlier, is to remain sufficiently hysteric before the indifferent face of the Real which this time is supposed to hold a secret. In the case of Ramgen’s murder the secret is the mastermind behind the crime.
Ramona’s retraction and her latest taped message are clear examples of a Zizekean alibi, taking advantage of the postmodern turn into the virtual power of the Real. The more virtual the Real the more real the Real becomes. That is what it’s supposed to mean—that the Real is not so real to begin with. But that is also what the Real likes to show by unshowing itself. It shows, yet shy of showing its secret which keeps its secret a mystery to ponder and especulate on, that it contains no less than nothing. To all symbolic intents and purposes, the Real is playing hard to get.
Ramona was of course lying judging by the fact that she retracted her statements. She issued a third statement recorded on a video earlier before she fled to Hongkong the reason for which, according to her fat mother (I am trying to be objectively descriptive), was to escape being unduly judged by public opinion. In the video (it was so stupid not to cut out the portion where she was caught bungling a scripted message) she denounced what she claimed to be a mistake by the police for implicating her as co-conspirator of her younger brother in the killing of their elder sibling. In the video she appeared sufficiently hysterical, something Zizek would be happy about. Of course, no one would expect Ramona to admit she did it or was part of the crime. If she did it would be the end of entertainment industry. The public would have maligned Ramona’s lie. What the public expected was for Ramona to sufficiently lie and she did what was expected. She satisfied public expectation about the crime that many also expect to become one of the hottest reality shows on TV, replete with twists and turns that pander to public taste. The public now considers Ramona a hot property, regardless whether she was part of the crime or not, regardless whether her version of the crime was real or not. With Ramona’s latest alibi she satisfied a Zizekean observation regarding virtual reality in which “reality is experienced as reality without being one.” The most crucial thing about this is that the public knows that something is wrong with Ramona and we are happy about it. We don’t expect Ramona to spoil the Real.
In this case the worst thing Ramona can do is to insult the public by telling what the public doesn’t expect her to tell, that is, to tell a lie insufficiently. Let us hazard an alibi to that effect. What about drawing attention to the necessary pure monetary angle of the crime that only those who are sufficiently poor can commit. Is Ramona sufficiently poor? Nah. The poor majority of the public can start an endless tit for tat. Only those who are sufficiently rich (the poor wonders why a rich man wants more riches?) can be dissatisfied with what they have. To be sufficient in life means to become more capable of getting richer. But Zizek’s warning resonates here in a similar fashion as does concerning the question of provoking global capitalism. Do not unnecessarily disturb the system of riches which literally depends on literal deprivation of others. It spoils the Real by being too realistic about one’s poverty such as to make a stupid claim (intended to unmask the stupidity of the sufficiently rich) that one can be satisfied with being poor that is why he cannot kill his brother for money.
Either side is as good as nothing because the Real, or any claim to the effect of getting to the bottom of it, is nothing. Ramona (and the public as well, but the challenge falls more heavily on the former who awakened the public from the slumber of having to make do with consuming a flurry of crimes shown on TV, all irrational and senseless, that is, devoid of pure human interest!) should not be allowed under all circumstances to reveal the void there is beyond the face of truth. This approximates what Zizek describes as a “reversal [which] resides in the ultimate impossibility to draw a clear distinction between deceptive reality and some firm positive kernel of the Real: every positive bit of reality is a priori suspicious since (as we know from Lacan) the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real).
Even if Ramona changes her mind and confesses to the crime as a co-conspirator her admission will not amount to the absolute resolution of the crime precisely because, if Zizek is right, the Real is no less than nothing. The Real is more than itself. As nothing the Real is ‘more’ than its appearance as the repository of truth, its ultimate witness. Hegel got it correct when he said that “the real is rational,” the rational being the more of the real. This more of the real is the product of reason, of the rational rationalizing itself. This form of self-mimicry produces a simulacrum of the Same. Nonetheless, it is not perfectly the same, only a simulacrum. Now, if Ramona acted as a co-conspirator then she is part of the rational structure of the crime, not its physical structure such as the actual execution of a plot to murder her brother. She did not kill her brother, she only thought of killing him, so to speak. But the Real is rational. For a plotter who denied involvement in the crime the rational, nonetheless, is less culpable if not completely independent of the crime itself. For she must have understood what Zizek means when the Slovenian thinker said that the Real is no other than the name for the Void. Building on this assumption, the plotter therefore made a correct judgement when she chose to play the hysteric and sufficiently so by rationalizing her alibi. The more rational the Real is the more it is real. Nothing more is Real than the more into which it shows its emptiness. We have learned another thing here: the best discoverer of the noble lie is not the guardians of Plato rather those with criminal minds. What is the noble lie? For one, the lie that the real is rational. What is noble about this lie is that no one in her right mind can conspire to kill one’s kin. Blood is thicker than water. That’s another noble lie.
But what is Zizek’s moral stance on the Real, if we may ask?
Zizek has paradoxical answers to everything that falls under his Lacanian lens. Take note of his following observations:
“The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real).
We have reasons to suppose that for Zizek the Real is not totally omnipresent. He did in fact point out the apolitical promise of changing our understanding of how to demand of the Real, beyond the market, beyond the political structure of capital, the family.
In Ramona’s latest alibi she lamented the perception of the public that she could betray her own family that stemmed from conflict over money that Ramgen was alleged to have hoarded for his own sake at the expense of his other eight siblings. The monthly financial support came from their father, now bound to the wheelchair due to sickness and old age, a former action star and senator of the Republic who is known to have fathered 72 children from 16 women, lean and stout.
It is textbook knowledge already that movies and politics have become the true semblance of the Real where total annihilation and violence are tempered by the virtuality of a narrative that the screen brings to life, which, if critics of film violence are right, contributes to real violence out there by inciting sadistic passion among the viewers. This is the case where the semblance of the Real produces a real effect which if anything is the Real itself. Nothing is more real than the effect of nothing, the Real.
Would it therefore make sense to say that the promise of the apolitical to escape the absurdity of the Real is to nourish a family? The family as the opposite of the Real where everything nurtured by the personal can be destroyed by the political and the economics of life support? Is there such thing as a family impervious to capital?
To all appearances Zizek doesn’t know the answers. Ah, the Marxist that he is.
Back to Ramona. A netizen, reacting on her version of the crime has the following words to say:”Tanungin niyo si Gloria at Mike if nagsasabi ng totoo si Ramona” (Ask former President Gloria Arroyo and her husband Mike if Ramona was telling the truth/my translation).
It may be recalled that former President Arroyo once admitted on television her guilt over the alleged massive electoral fraud in Mindanao that ensured her victory in the 2004 national elections. She successfully completed her term as if admitting guilt amounted to nothing.