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Is globalization the end of the world? Not quite.

The Future of Politics (I)

Slavoj Zizek (pronounced "slavoi jijek"), a leading intellectual in the new social movements of Eastern and Central Europe, is a professor at the Institute for Sociology, Ljubljana. He was strongly influenced by Marx, Hegel and Schelling. In temperament, he resembles a revolutionist more than a theoretician. He was politically active in Slovenia during the 80s, a candidate for the presidency of the Republic of Slovenia in 1990, and most of his works are moral and political rather than purely theoretical. He has considerable energy and charisma and is a spellbinding lecturer. Reading him, says the German Journalist Nina Ort, is an intellectual cat-and-mouse-game.

By Slavoj Zizek

Four philosophers as different as Jacques Derrida, Juergen Habermas, Richard Rorty and Daniel Dennett would probably adopt a left-of-center liberal-democratic stance in practical political decisions - as to the political conclusions to be drawn from their thought, the difference between their positions is negligeable. Rorty, who made this perspicuous obervation, concludes from it that philosophical differences do not involve, generate or rely on political differences - politically, they do not really matter. No wonder, then, that even such an engaged intellectual as Noam Chomsky likes to underscore how unimportant theoretical knowledge is for progressive political struggle: of what help is studying great philosophical and social-theoretical texts in today's struggle against the neoliberal model of globalization? What, however, if philosophical differences DO matter politically, and if, consequently, this political congruence between philosophers tells us something crucial about their pertinent philosophical stance? What if, in spite of the great public passionate debates between deconstructionists, pragmatists, Habermasians and cognitivists, they nonetheless share a series of philosophical premises, i.e. what if there is an unacknowledged proximity between them? And what if the task today is precisely to break with this terrain of shared premises?

We live in an uncanny time in which, perhaps for the first time in the history of humankind, basic philosophical questions haunt all of us: digitalization, ecological crisis and biogenetics confront all of us with the nature of human freedom and similar philosophical topics. In this time of continuous swift changes, from the "digital revolution" to the retreat of old social forms, the thought is more than ever exposed to the temptation of "losing its nervs," of precociously abandoning the old conceptual coordinates. The media constantly bombard us with the need to abandon the "old paradigms": if we are to survive, we have to change our most fundamental notions of what personal identity, society, environment, etc. The New Age wisdom claims that we are entering a new "post-human" era; psychoanalysts hasten to concede that the Oedipal matrix of socialization is no longer operative, that we live in times of universalized perversion, that the concept of "repression" is of no use in our permissive times; the postmodern political thought is telling us that we are entering the postindustrial societies, in which the old categories of labor, collectivity, class, etc., are theoretical zombies, no longer applicable to the dynamics of modernization.

Against this temptation, one should rather follow the unsurpassed example of Pascal and ask the difficult question: How are we to remain faithful to the Old in the new conditions? ONLY in this way can we generate something effectively New.

Habermas designated the present era as that of the neue Unübersichtlichkeit. In politics proper, we encounter strange reversals: the extreme Right no longer says openly what the moderate Right secretly thinks (about immigrants, etc.) - it often says what the moderate LEFT secretly thinks, but doesn't dare to say openly (about defending the working class, etc.). More than ever, our daily experience is mystifying: modernization generates new obscurantisms, the reduction of freedom is presented to us as the arrival of new freedoms. The ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the very insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms: you have to change job every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment? Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or "second modernity" ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the "escape from freedom," of the immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, it looks as if I were automatically to interpret all these changes as the results of my personality, not as the result of me being thrown around by the market forces.

In these circumstances, one should be especially attentive to the ambiguity of the ongoing phenomena. One often hears the complaint that the recent trend of globalization threatens the sovereignty of the Nation-States; here, however, one should qualify this statement: WHICH states are most exposed to this threat? It is not the small states, but the second-rang (ex-)world powers, countries like United Kingdom and France: what they fear is that, immersed in the newly emerging global Empire, they are put at the same level as Austria, Belgium or even Luxembourg. The refusal of "Americanization" in France, shared by many Leftists and Rightist nationalists, is thus ultimately the refusal to accept the fact that France itself is losing its hegemonic role in Europe. The levelling of weight between larger and smaller Nation-States should thus be counted among the beneficial effects of globalization: beneath the contemptuous deriding of the new Eastern European post-Communist states, it is easy to discern the contours of the wounded Narcissism of the European "great nations."

Furthermore, one should be especially careful not to confuse the ruling ideology with ideology which SEEMS to dominate. More then ever, one should bear in mind Walter Benjamin's reminder that it is not enough to ask how a certain theory (or art) declares itself to stay with regard to social struggles - one should also ask how it effectively functions IN these very struggles. In sex, the effectively hegemonic attitude is not patriarchal repression, but free promiscuity; in art, provocations in the style of the notorious "Sensation" exhibitions ARE the norm, the example of the art fully integrated into the establishment. In the generalized perversion of late capitalism, transgression itself is solicited, we are daily bombarded by gadgets and social forms which not only enable us to live with our perversions, but even directly conjure new perversions. Suffice it to recall, in the sexual domain proper, all the gadgets invented to bring diversity and new excitement into our sexual lives, from lotions that should enhance our potency and pleasure to different outfits and instruments (rings, provocative dresses, whips and chains, vibrators and other artificial prothetic organs, not to mention pornography and other direct stimulators of the mind). The ultimate example of - not only commodity fetishism, but, in a much more literal way, fetishism itself commodified - is found today in Japan, where, in the vending machines, one can buy, alongside cans of coke and pre-packed food, panties guaranteed to be used by young girls. All these objects do not simply incite the "natural" sexual desire, they rather supplement it in the Derridean sense, giving it an irreducible "perverse," excessive and derailed, twist. They - all this (often boring and repetitive) proliferation of gadgets - render most directly what Lacan called objets petit a. Among America's best-selling toys in the Summer of 2000 was Death Row Marv, in which a man strapped into an electric chair trash-talks his executioner (i.e. you, the customer), almost begging you to lit him up with the jolts of electricity by pushing the appropriate button. And what about the Electric Chair Game arcades at various parks not only in the US, but also in Europe, where you are strapped-in to the controlled dose of electricity (voluntarily administered): "winning" involves staying in the chair until the machine declares you dead, while losers release the electrodes early - even the ultimate act of the exercise of state power can be turned into a gadget that provides obscene pleasure.

So, instead of the direct sexual encounter with the Other, we more and more slide towards something which uncannily resembles Leibniz' ontological vision of monadology: in the emerging cyberspace communities, global harmony and solipsism strangely coexist. That is to say, does our immersion into cyberspace not go hand in hand with our reduction to a Leibnizean monad which, although "without windows" that would directly open up to external reality, mirrors in itself the entire universe? Are we not more and more monads with no direct windows onto reality, interacting alone with the PC screen, encountering only the virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever into the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire globe?

What we have today in virtual communities is a new collective space which "deconstructs" the standard opposition of private and public: when we share our most intimate fantasies on the web, when, on cam-websites, we can observe from the bottom of the toilet bowl other people defecating, this is no longer the old-fashioned exhibitionism - in these uncanny phenomena, a new space is created, the paradoxical space of shared, collective privacy. This private self-exposure is recently gaining hitherto inconceivable dimensions: a quick search on the web will reveal you sites where you can watch what the mini-camera at the top of a dildo sees when it penetrates the vagina.

(to be continued)

8. August 2001


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