Friday, October 21, 2005
Zizek on Katrina posted by Richard SeymourSlavoj Zizek is on excellent form with this able demolition of the racism in the reactions to Katrina. First, the psychoanalytical distinctions:
According to a well-known anecdote, anthropologists studying “primitives” who supposedly held certain superstitious beliefs (that they descend from a fish or from a bird, for example) asked them directly whether they “really” believed such things. They answered: “Of course not—we ‘re not stupid! But I was told that some of our ancestors actually did believe that.” In short, they transferred their belief onto another.
We do the same thing with our children by going through the ritual of Santa Claus. Since our children (are supposed to) believe in him and we do not want to disappoint them, they pretend to believe so as not to disappoint us by puncturing our belief in their naivety (and to get the presents, of course). Isn’t this also the usual excuse of the mythical crooked politician who turns honest? “I cannot disappoint the ordinary people who believe in me.”
Belief, fear, brutality, naivete etc is therefore transferred onto another, the subject supposed to know, believe, fear etc. And now we have another example of this phenomena:
The events in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the city provide a new addition to this series of “subjects supposed to…”—the subject supposed to loot and rape. We all remember the reports on the disintegration of public order, the explosion of black violence, rape and looting. However, later inquiries demonstrated that, in the large majority of cases, these alleged orgies of violence did not occur: Non-verified rumors were simply reported as facts by the media.
The pleas of innocence that followed usually took the form of,
this is what we were being told by survivors, it was literally a case of being misled, we certainly intended no racial slur...However, in Zizek's Lacanian court, this plea is scoffed at, firstly because of the consequences:
The reality of poor blacks, abandoned and left without means to survive, was thus transformed into the specter of blacks exploding violently, of tourists robbed and killed on streets that had slid into anarchy, of the Superdome ruled by gangs that were raping women and children. These reports were not merely words, they were words that had precise material effects: They generated fears that caused some police officers to quit and led the authorities to change troop deployments, delay medical evacuations and ground helicopters. Acadian Ambulance Company, for example, locked down its cars after word came that armed robbers had looted all of the water from a firehouse in Covington—a report that proved totally untrue.
Further, we finally have an answer to the old question 'Is it paranoia if they're really out to get you?' The answer is: yes!:
[T]he (limited) reality of crimes in no way exonerates “reports” on the total breakdown of law and order—not because these reports were “exaggerated,” but for a much more radical reason. Jacques Lacan claimed that, even if the patient’s wife is really sleeping around with other men, the patient ‘s jealousy is still to be treated as a pathological condition. In a homologous way, even if rich Jews in early 1930s Germany “really” had exploited German workers, seduced their daughters and dominated the popular press, the Nazis ’ anti-Semitism would still have been an emphatically “untrue,” pathological ideological condition. Why? Because the causes of all social antagonisms were projected onto the “Jew”—an object of perverted love-hatred, a spectral figure of mixed fascination and disgust.
And exactly the same goes for the looting in New Orleans: Even if all the reports on violence and rapes had proven to be factually true, the stories circulating about them would still be “pathological” and racist, since what motivated these stories were not facts, but racist prejudices, the satisfaction felt by those who would be able to say: “You see, Blacks really are like that, violent barbarians under the thin layer of civilization!” In other words, we would be dealing with what could be called lying in the guise of truth: Even if what I am saying is factually true, the motives that make me say it are false.
This is a case Zizek has made before (I think in The Ticklish Subject), and one often encounters instances of it. For instance, a person says to me "my mate's house was burgled by a black guy" (this did occur in a conversation). Whether true or not, the curious question is why he even raised the question of skin pigmentation. Including it suggests that one considers such matters more than a minor descriptive detail. But of course, having offered up an intimation of racist fantasy (ebondark intruders eloping from the Englishman's castle with the VCR), it is immediately withdrawn - as in, "not that that matters or anything". Zizek goes on:
Of course, we never openly admit these motives. But from time to time, they nonetheless pop up in our public space in a censored form, in the guise of denegation: Once evoked as an option, they are then immediately discarded. Recall the recent comments by William Bennett, the compulsive gambler and author of The Book of Virtues, on his call-in program “Morning in America”: “But I do know that it ‘s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” The White House spokesman immediately reacted: “The president believes the comments were not appropriate.” Two days later, Bennett qualified his statement: “I was putting a hypothetical proposition … and then said about it, it was morally reprehensible to recommend abortion of an entire group of people. But this is what happens when you argue that ends can justify the means.” This is exactly what Freud meant when he wrote that the Unconscious knows no negation: The official (Christian, democratic … ) discourse is accompanied and sustained by a whole nest of obscene, brutal racist and sexist fantasies, which can only be admitted in a censored form.
Zizek goes on to look at the resurgent racist authoritarianism of the state: from the EU's construction of a border police force to keep out immigrants to the recent assassination of migrants fleeing G8-engineered famine (covered by Bat here), and:
This is the truth of globalization: the construction of new walls safeguarding the prosperous Europe from a flood of immigrants. One is tempted to resuscitate here the old Marxist “humanist” opposition of “relations between things” and “relations between persons”: In the much celebrated free circulation opened up by the global capitalism, it is “things” (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of “persons” is more and more controlled.
And what makes the racism around Katrina acceptable in polite society is that:
The “subject supposed to loot and rape” is on the other side of the Wall—this is the subject about whom Bennett can afford to make his slips of the tongue and confess in a censored mode his murderous dreams.
Interestingly, one of Zizek's Lubljana colleagues, Alenka Zupancic, draws out in a very fine way the Lacanian-Kantian attitude to racism, particularly that which is either unconscious or is formally or publicly disavowed, in her Ethics of the Real:
The most pointed example would be that of fetishism: a certain object, for instance, may leave person A completely cold, whereas in person B it can incite a whole series of actions, procedures and rituals, without person B being able to do anything about it. This is because the object at stake does not play the same part in the libidinal economy of the two people ... the subject has to be considered as playing a part in this. We must attribute to the subject the decision involved in incorporation of this drive or incentive into her maxim, even though this decision is neither experiential or temporal ... The decision in question is, of course, to be situated on the level of the unconscious or, in Kantian terms, on the level of the Gesinnung, the 'disposition' of the subject which is, according to Kant, the ultimate foundation of the incorporation of incentives into maxims.
I don't quite get the last bit either, but you see the point: you are obliged to take responsibility for your unconscious predispositions. You can't hide behind "I didn't mean it" or "I'm just telling you what the survivors said" or "well, there were a lot of rumours going round and...". Racism, and a certain amount of displaced class-supremacism, is no more innocent in America than, say, Venezuela (where the makers of the documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised found rich, blonde, upper-class elites snarling about the ignorant, workshy poor and worrying about whether their domestic servants might be spies for Chavez). In fact, the reporters and politicians and media pundits who took part in that febrile charade are guilty as hell.