Here I attempt to apply some of Zizek’s theory to two contemporary situations. The first is the prosecution of a homeless man for fishing and eating his catch in San Luis Obispo and the second is the break down of ecological and social space in Nigeria due to Oil production.
In The Parallax View the Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek uses the Mobius strip as one of his theoretical tools in order to explore the Real—the gap, or antagonism that exceeds the symbolic and imaginary orders (Lacan’s triad—if you have no clue what I am talking about at this point don’t worry, less than 2% of the world does and the just of the argument can still be understood.) The Mobius strip is a mathematical model that can be made by simply taking a peace of tape, giving it a half twist and connecting the two sides. The interesting part about a Mobius strip is that it is nonorientable. That is, the surface of the Mobius strip can be traversed both in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction without ever leaving the strip. It could also be said, although sidedness is problematic in topology, that the Mobius strip is an object with only one side.
Check out the Mobius Strip here complete with some wicked tunes…
For Zizek the Mobius strip is yet one more way of speaking about the inherent gap that is the Real. This gap between two apparently different positions is to be posited as the Real. The Real is the “minimal difference” (the non-coincidence of the one with itself). So what the hell am I talking about?
I think we should begin by reading this story…
alongside this one… The way that I want to “read” this next story is simply by scrolling through the pictures, since the full book is not available on the website and a picture is worth… well you know.
The first is a story about a homeless man, Victor Manuel Silva, who was arrested for preparing a fish that he caught in a public stream in San Luis Obispo, Ca. He was charged and prosecuted for violating the Endangered Species Act. The interesting thing about the story is the completely ambivalent tone of the author and the other players—from the warden to the special agent—to Silva as a human being in need of a meal. From the author’s perspective, so it seems, the most important character of the story is the fish.
Another interesting note is the recognition of the ecological damage that put the fish on the endangered species list in the first place.
“Area streams teemed with steelhead a century ago, but habitat destruction, dams, pollution and low stream flows have reduced populations of the fish to a small fraction of their former numbers.”
Who is responsible for this habitat destruction, pollution, and low stream flows? Could it possibly be the very same people who can afford the time, money and energy to belong and donate to the …
“Various government agencies and conservation groups (that) have spent millions of dollars rehabilitating Central Coast creeks in an attempt to improve steelhead habitat.”
And, further, is it possible that these same people made their money off of the very habit destruction—contractors, those buying second homes in the OC, the constant expansion of new stores to create and fulfill our desires; dams; etc.
Now off to Africa…
(If you haven’t already, look here)
The second story is the website for the book Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. It traverses, through photography and text, both the environmental damage and the communal disruption that the search for and acquisition of this natural resource has caused on the region. As with most circumstances in Africa, which one must remember has been in constant turmoil since the days of colonization, a very limited number of individuals, mostly in the West, get incredibly rich while the locals suffer.
The third photo is telling in that an employee of Shell, one of the major providers of gasoline for America, is standing guard while yet another oil spill is cleaned up. All the photos are both tragic and beautiful, the danger of photography—it can make aesthetically meaningful something that is utterly negation. The face of evil becomes sublime.
Of course the question to be asked here is what does Nigeria have to do with San Luis Obispo? What does the total catastrophe of the environment and the social order in a region of Nigeria have to do with the explicit ambivalence of San Luis Obispo’s social and symbolic space towards the hungry homeless man in their midst, their unquestioned resignation to fight the environmental danger of this hungry Other?
Here I think Zizek can help…
“The two perspectives—that of the affluent (San Luis Opisbo) and that of (Nigeria)—are irretrievably “out of sync”, so that there is no neutral language enabling us to translate one into the other, even less to posit one as the ‘truth’ of the other. All we can ultimately do in today’s conditions is to remain faithful to this split as such, to record it. Every exclusive focus on the First World topics of late-capitalist alienation and commodification, of ecological crisis, of the new racisms and intolerances, and so on, cannot but appear cynical in the face of raw Third World poverty, hunger and violence; on the other hand, attempts to dismiss First World problems as trivial in comparison with ‘real’ permanent Third World catastrophes are no less a fake—focusing on the ‘real problems’ of the Third World (can be) the ultimate of escapism, of avoiding confrontations with the antagonisms in one’s own society.” (The Parallax View, 129 parentheses mine.)
Allow me a brief digression.
–Digression towards a proper politics
For Zizek societal space is ultimately constructed out of/on top/around a fundamental antagonism. The Real—or that which the symbolic reality cannot cover over completely, the excess that exceeds all meaning—is this antagonism. In society and politics the Real manifests itself as, “… the excluded, those with no fixed place with in the social edifice… ‘the part, with no part’”. (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 64) That is, those members of society that have no position. Just like the homeless. They are the living dead, the irritant that interrupts our busy lives as we walk from the gym to the store. They are the stains on our backdrop of Mac stores and concrete skyscrapers—Babel’s towers re-erected—society’s excess or excrement—this is not to be read as pejorative towards those who occupy this locus but rather towards those who keep them there. However, for Zizek, this excess/excrement/remainder is the point of the Real, and the site of the political. (PD 63)
In the same way the immigrant is the threat of the Real. This is the case precisely because they have no fixed place in our social/political space. Though our society could not run as it does without the cheap labor that the immigrant provides, and though, with the exception of Native Americans, who where pushed out by the rest of us, we are all immigrants, society refuses to recognize the immigrant as a legitimate human being with legal rights. In light of this the immigrant disrupts the illusion that our society is just. They are a constant reminder that America is the land of freedom and opportunity for only a select affluent-minority. Thus the immigrant is the possibility of politics proper.
This understanding of politics is dependant on the most ancient of Western experiments in democracy, that of Ancient Greece. For Jacques Rancier, whom Zizek follows here, politics proper began when the members of the demos, those previously excluded from the politics of the Aristocracy, demanded that their voice be heard. They not only demanded that they have a place within the political order but rather that they, the excluded, were to be the representatives of the whole of the people. They were the new universal, the universal singular. (PD, 64)
The ridiculousness of this situation is lost on us and possibly only available if we imagine a group of immigrants marching through downtown LA demanding that their political vote count over, against and above the lawyer’s, broker’s, school teacher’s, etc. Another route could be remembering one of the most important of political events in our nation, the marching of thousands through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama in May of 1963.
(If we were to do this it may do us well to remember that economics was a key factor. Politics and economics can never be divided; if the economic crisis can teach us anything it is this.)
In order to get at this Zizek uses Malevich’s Black Square on White Background to symbolize the minimal difference between the place and what takes place. (It seems to me that Zizek is less concerned with Malevich’s Suprematism—not to say that his interpretation is not dependant on Malevich’s philosophy—and more interested in the space in which the black square occupies; of course, again, this is Malevich’s point, but Suprematism seems to go beyond this.) That is, the difference between the blackness of the square and the whiteness of the background is the meaning of the painting. It is not a representational or mimetic peace but a peace of pure form, empty or void. In the same way that Duchamp’s readymade Bicycle Wheel is a work of art. (PV, 152)
The important point is that they both become art when they occupy the space of art and as such bring into view the question of what constitutes art—is it the art itself or the space that it occupies that makes it art—and, in addition with Malevich’s peace, this difference is inscribed into the peace of art itself. The pure difference that separates an object from itself is present. (PV, 154)
In other words this pure difference of form is the place where we can discern the working of the Real. A Malvechian politics marks the minimal difference between the non-social within the social. (PD, 65) Again, this is the Real, which in the political realm is the social antagonism of class struggle. Why? Well, first, because Zizek is offering a Marxist reading of reality. But there is a second, though related, reason and this is because, in light of globalization and the “end of history”—Fukuyama’s infamous statement that the world’s ideological battles are over since liberal-democratic-capitalism has won with the demise of the Soviet Block—all of life is now shaped by Capital, its alienating effects and its need for ever expanding production and consumption, i.e. the 3% annual growth needed for capitalism to function, will continue to drive the winners and the losers further apart. (For a fairly brief theological argument for why everyone is a loser in capitalism see Daniel Bell’s article here.)
What ideology attempts to do is cover over the Real, or control the in breaking of it in our societal space, or our “reality”, the Symbolic Order. So what we get in the worst case of ideology (for Zizek) is “Oriental Spirituality”. This constitutes, “…the paradigmatic ideology of late capitalism.” (PD, 26). With this type of spirituality we come to the attempt that while there seems to be discontinuity, underneath it all is the harmony of the emptiness of Nirvana that only needs to be accessed.
The difference between this harmony and that of Christianity’s—what John Milbank calls an ontology of peaceableness—is that with Buddhism one can escape this antagonism on one’s own. In fact all that is needed is a shift in perspective, enlightenment. When one overcomes one’s own ignorance, which is what causes one to grasp at shadows, one becomes connected to the dharma, or the truth that all things are one, interconnected and interdependent. For Christianity, rather, this antagonism, or sin, is inherent in reality after the Fall irregardless of one’s perspective. Original Sin is the idea that this split, or break between ourselves, one another, the world and God is not able to be overcome by ourselves but only by a merciful, reconciling act of God. This is the Christ Event, in which God takes the violence of the world into his own life, exposes it for what it is, and overcomes it saving humanity and setting it along with the entire cosmos on the path towards salvation. We are saved, being saved and will be saved.
In the worst case of Buddhist ideology, what Zizek terms Militaristic Zen Buddhism, practitioners are not only convinced that they are killing out of compassion, but even further that, since (1) death and life are one and the same in light of the void of Nirvana, (2) the self has no existence, and (3) one should act without clinging, one can and should perform one’s military duty of killing the other without consideration for oneself or for the other. (PD, 28) If one kills, ok. If one is killed, ok. As long as one does not cling the outcome is ambivalent.
Another, and more familiar form of ideology is the post-9/11 statement that, “they did this because they hate our freedom.” This is ideology at its purest because it covers over the fact that the US has been both economically and militarily present in the Middle East for decades trying to sway politics in our favor and often doing so with deadly force. It is an attempt to conceal the reality that the US has been bullying the less powerful nations of the world for almost the entire 20th century and that 9/11 was an effort by one such group of less powerful people to strike back. It hopes to veil the social antagonism that made 9/11 and continuous terrorist attacks and threats possible, namely the dislocated effects of America’s colonizing, which is connected to Capital’s, reach. Yet, in so far as it strives to do this it fails, because ideology, like language, can never completely eclipse the Real. The Real proceeds and exceeds all attempts at symbolization, explanation and ideology. This is the benefit of movies like The Kingdom. They are a reminder of the remainder of the Real within our symbolic space without the violence of things such as 9/11, pointing to the truth that the binary terrorism/just-war is constructed by those with the economic and political power to construct and define this symbolic space and thus reality.
And this brings us back to San Luis Obispo and Nigeria.
–Back from a very long digression.
As we saw in the quote above Zizek suggests that all we can do is remain faithful by recording the split between the raw poverty of the Third World and First World alienation, ecological crises, etc. There maybe no neutral language but it is not because they do not occupy the same space. They exist on the surface of the Mobius strip, which is the Real of Capital. That is they remain forever estranged from one another as if on two opposite sides of the world or two opposite sides of a surface, and in a paradoxical way they are. If you picture a Mobius strip held up one is on the bottom of the strip directly under the other on the top. The paradox is that while they can exist on two opposite sides the sides that they exist on are really the one and the same surface, it just needs to be traversed far enough to recognize it as such.
While they both exist on the same surface of the Real of Capital, they nevertheless do not constitute a politics proper. The book Curse of the Black Gold could be seen as an attempt to do so. As could, possibly, the reading of the San Luis Obispo story in this post, but both fail in so far as they do not constitute an in breaking of the Real. They simply note the social antagonism as such and in a way that many, especially with this post, will not be effected, where as with politics proper a recognition is forced on all. What both the stories point to is an “evental site” but ones that do not seem incredibly significant when compared to the slum dwellers of Third World megalopolises, because in the slums of the megalopolises something may actually happen. (PV, 268)
What those who constitute the excess/excrement of the world’s social space need is a call somewhere between the lines “proletariat unite” and “blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God”. What they also need are ears to hear and a voice to proclaim that call. What we all need is a reminder that the greatest political event in all of history has already happened and that those who wish to participate in it better head the cries of the hungry, the prisoner, the homeless and the alien in their midst or face being excluded from the socio-political-economic space of the Kingdom that is already here in the form of a mustard seed but will grow to fill the heavens and the earth.