Saturday, August 08, 2009

Perverting the course of justice

I know that the semester is over when I don't just listlessly flick through the London Review of Books but actually manage to read an article or two. My temporarily (slightly) reduced workload also allows me to finally add a belated comment inspired by my reading (yay!) to a political issue that other bloggers have been discussing at greater length (e.g. here, here and here).

The LRB of 23 July opens with Slavoj Žižek's disquisition on Iranian politics, promisingly entitled "Berlusconi in Tehran". The main argument of the article is that most Western commentators (the Seumas Milnes of this world or the intellectually challenged German extreme Left) underestimate the revolutionary dimension of the uprising in Iran as well as the dangerousness of the person at whom the protests have been directed. He argues that to take Ahmadinejad's posturing as mere buffoonery, let alone to defend him as a Muslim Robin Hood, means failing to see that he is a "corrupt Islamofascist populist." In turn, such a failure means overlooking how we can learn from the Iranian situation. If I understand Žižek correctly (and of course one never knows with him), he sees Iran as providing something of a distorted mirror image that shows the all-too self-satisfied democracies in no uncertain terms the direction in which they might be heading. Italy, in his view, is already halfway there - hence the title. (Though, hang on, shouldn't it really be "Ahmadinejad in Rome"?)

So far, so good. I'm more or less with Žižek on that. Beware of the gregarious clowns and doddery family guys dressed for a Captain's dinner, they are all political psychopaths in disguise.

But otherwise?

The article is about as typically Žižek as they come (if you've read one of them, you've read them all) and as always I'm in two minds about both argument and style. As is his wont, Žižek begins with a strawmannish exposition of opinion
s that he will subsequently discount. Then follows the obligatory reference to academia's latest dahling Alain Badiou, which - by introducing another of the French philosopher's perverted notions of democracy - provides a segue into Žižek's own take on whatever it is he discusses. He then inevitably turns to a (or a selection of) computer-generated Hollywood blockbusters - in this case Kung Fu Panda - to illustrate his point, which usually climaxes in a deus ex machina appearance of the Lacanian Real.

Žižek's work is based on the principle of the spin-off, and this article is no exception to the unwritten "Rule of Slavoj" that the same is beautiful. In fact, pattern-recognition is probably an evolved capacity, so I shouldn't dis him for exploiting the charm of derivation (especially since others do that kind of thing, too, and with less brio). However, one has to say that the article in question is stylistically particularly lacklustre, containing narcoleptic passages like the following: "But the film's pseudo-Oriental spiritualism is constantly undermined by cynical humour [my emphasis]" - Come on Slavoj, you can do better than "Advanced Academic Writing" c. 1997!

Still, the article has its moments, for instance in Žižek's criticism of Obama's Cairo speech on the need for a dialogue between religions:
No, we don't need a dialogue between religions (or civilisations), we need a bond of political solidarity between those who struggle for justice in Muslim countries and those who participate in the same struggle elsewhere.
"Political solidarity" and "justice" - now these are nicely reasonable, universalist categories, and this particular passage really raised my hopes regarding the rest. Sadly, though, Žižek seems so embarrassed by his own capacity of lucid rationality that he immediately seeks refuge in psychoanalysis. Part one of his argument is that the recent protests in Iran expressed the original spirit of the 1979 revolution:
Now is the time to remember the effervescence that followed the revolution, the explosion of political and social creativity, organsiational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. That this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the revolution was an authentic political event, an opening that unleashed altogether new forces of social transformation: a moment in which "everything seemed possible."
These possibilities, so Žižek, were gradually closed down with the triumph of the Ayatollahs - they were repressed. Which leads him to part two of his argument: What is happening now is a return of these repressed revolutionary forces:
To put it in Freudian terms, today's protest movement is the "return of the repressed of the Khomeini revolution."
"The Khomeini revolution"? I'm far from an expert on Iran, but this phrase strikes me as an oddly monolithic misrepresentation of what happened in 1979.

But that's just by-the-by. What really irritated me about this article - for the first time, although I've read more than my share of Žižek and never noticed - is his obsession with putting politics in psychoanalytical terms. And for the first time I understood that to do so is not only frivolous, but in fact fundamentally obscene (a term I use in its everyday, negatively connoted, sense, not in the way it has been reinterpreted).

Justice is not "the repressed". To desire justice ought to be the desired norm, for everyone. It is an ordinary, human need, not a pathological skeleton hidden away in a closet. It is not the symptom of my Oedipus complex, it is as real and as visceral as the needs of my species being can be. Justice might not be effervescent, revolutionary or apocalyptic - but the quiet stability that it provides has its attraction, too.

It seems to me that those in Iran who have died, been tortured and/or are currently humiliated in show trials that have nothing to do with justice for fighting for the very same, deserve better than being sent, metaphorically speaking, to the psychoanalyst's couch.

Topical window display, Bingen 2009.


Mikeovswinton said...

Some interesting stuff here. Reading bits of Zizek from time to time -I did read a whole book a few years back but realised that to get much from it I would have to (a) read everything else he's written and (b) read the whole of the oeuvre of Jacques Lacan - reminds me of the comment made by Louis Armstrong's manager to Mr Armstrong after his fist hit. This was - summarised - "Now you've got to do some more stuff that sounds just like that but is little bit different."

The Wife said...

A whole book, hm?

I was a Zizek groupie once, well - sort of. But I've gotten over that. I'm not as bad as the people who attend his "masterclasses". Apparently there was one of them in London earlier the summer. I met a woman from Norway at a conference in Northampton who was all aflutter over being able - nay, having the honour - to participate.

This was the person who said to me: "I don't really buy the evolutionary psychology thing."

And then she proceeded to monologise about the mirror stage.

Alex said...

I thought the LRB piece was reasonably sensible, but Zizek did have the advantage of cribbing Jamie Kenny's blog since 2005 or thereabouts.

The Wife said...

Beware of Lacanians who seem "reasonably sensible"!