Mom! Slavoj Žižek’s Demanding the Impossible!

Ah, Slavoj Žižek, the delightful pop critical theorist, the “Elvis of Cultural Theory”. In our world of short attention-spans, he still manages to rock it like…err…Madonna?… Causing constant controversy either in misreading other philosophers or in being deliberately offensive (oh, being critical) or in just plain plagiarism, the sweaty-haired pepper-bearded one manages keeps us entertained.

If you were keen on giving him the benefit of the doubt, you’d say his philosophy was complex; if you were critical in the way he proposes, then you’d say he was fluffing.

Regardless, it’s always fun to find gems in his many talks/rambles that incorporate all manner of pop movie and contemporary-event references. 🙂

Slavoj Žižek's Demanding the Impossible, Baguette, comte

Today in Demanding the Impossible:

    • …just as in more confused times, like today, we don’t just need experts. We also need people who will think more radically to arrive at the real root of problems…I believe this may be the main task for today: to prevent the narrow production of experts…Let’s look at [an] example from ecology. When the oil spill in the Gulf Mexico unfortunately happened in the summer of 2010, people quickly needed experts to deal with the animals and other sea creatures. No, that’s not what we need. Indeed, what should be raised here is a much more fundamental question about such problems, problems for all of us which potentially shatter our commons:”What are the risks if we have to keep the oil drill?” “What kind of industry can replace it?”
    • …look at the proletarian position on the internet. It’s clear who will control the internet. What is really worrying, with so-called cloud computing, is a massive reprivatization of global spaces…I think the key is to prevent these clouds from being privately owned. This is not a technological problem; indeed, it is a purely ideological economic decision.
    • …now something new is emerging that I cannot but call “private public space.” When you chat erotically on the internet, even showing our photos or whatever, you feel like you are in contact with the global world, but you are still isolated in a private space. It’s a kind of global solipsism.
    • …when intellectual property is appropriated by private property we have a new enclosure of the commons.
    • Another thing that worries me is the reason why China weathered this financial crisis much more easily than elsewhere. The great danger is that all of a sudden, because of its virtual nature, crisis erupts. What is needed more and more are big radical decisions. In the democracy we have now, it’s difficult. You have to go through all the mechanisms. But I read a book on China…when the fiasco happened in 2008, the banks generally put a limit on borrowing because people were not paying back loans, and it was this that eventually pushed the economy further down. but in China, the communist political power bureau gave an order:”No, you should give people even more credit.” And it worked perfectly. It is somehow very sad to discover that authoritarian power is much more efficient in these conditions. [Comment: well, then it should show that your theories don’t work as you want them to work…or wait, what theories…]
    • …I wonder if this so-called “capitalism with Asian values,” a Chinese-Singaporean authoritarian capitalism, is not a new form of capitalism, which is economically even more dynamic. It’s productive and it functions even better. But it doesn’t generate a long-term demand for democracy. Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken. [Comment: well, if the evidence doesn’t fit the hypothesis…]
    • Somehow all these civil society movements should think not just about organising a big demonstration once a year in Trafalgar Square or wherever, but about engaging in a more active cooperation.
    • Revolutions sometimes do happen maybe in times of chaos. But they usually happen when there’s neither a war nor chaos. Revolutions happen under two conditions: in times of poverty, and when justice breaks down. Yet the two are not necessarily connected. Usually in order to realise that your situation is unjust, you must a least experience a certain ideological freedom. Because the first step toward freedom is to becomes aware of your situation – the situation of injustice and unfairness.
    • I think it’s too easy to say that state power is corrupted, so let’s withdraw into this role of ethical critic of power, etc. But here I’m almost a conservative Hegelian. How many things have to function in order for something to be done? Laws, manners, rules: these are what make us feel truly free. I don’t think that people are aware of this fact. That was the hypocrisy of many leftists there: their target was the whole structure of the state apparatus of power. But we still need to count on all the state apparatus functioning…I think that the left should drop this model of immediate transparent democracy.
      The Stump Jump GSM Wine
    • I think today that the discourse of victimization is almost the predominant discourse when it says that everyone can be a victim of smoking or sexual harassment. today we have an extremely narcissistic notion of personality.
    • …what I don’t like is that you often find an aspect of satisfaction in saying: “Oh, poor Russia. But we know….” I always find it suspicious that, when you sympathise with freedom fighters in other countries, the conclusion is usually like this: “Look at those poor guys, but with us everything is okay.”…I just don’t like this liberal superiority.
    • Walter Benjamin already said: “Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.”
    • As Hegel already know, “absolute democracy” could only actualize itself in the guise of its “oppositional determination,” as terror…So when Naomi Klein writes,”Decentralizing power doesn’t mean abandoning strong national and international standards – and stable, equitable funding – for healthy care, education, affordable housing and environmental protection. But it does mean that the mantra of the left needs to change from “increase funding” to “empower the grassroots”,” one should ask the naive question: How? How are these strong standards and funding – in short, the main ingredients of the welfare state – to be maintained? What would “multitude in power” (not only as resistance) be? How would it function?
    • In his unique book of dialogues, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, Rousseau deployed the wonderful idea of distinguishing between two types of egotism – amour-de-soi (that love of the self which is natural) and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself over others in which a person focuses not on achieving a goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it…a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others.
    • …in France where, you remember, there were car-burning rebels in Paris about three years ago. This I think is a model of today’s form of revolt: a bad one…It was a kind of pure protest without a program. It was, quoting Roman Jakobson in linguistics, the notion of “phatic communication.” The goal is not to pass information but just to signal,”Hi, I’m here.” The point is just to tell you this. There was no positive message of wanting more justice or dignity. It was a big explosion of violence…It is a dangerous situation when young people just have this abstract discontent. [Comment: like all sorts of ego graffiti.]

Interesting critiques, but what would the Lord of the Universe have to say to this?

Coach from Saigon (Vietnam) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia). The Perils of Transparency.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Giant Ibis coach from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
banh mi for the bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Giant Ibis water and pizza snack on bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, CambodiaWalked to the Giant Ibis coach office in Siem Reap, waved along by some older Vietnamese ladies who were sitting on the street having a yabber. It was a fairly empty coach for a Saturday. I’d brought a banh mi for brekkie and there was complimentary water and a pizza snack.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
duck ponds, Phnom Penh, CambodiaEnjoyed the buccolic scenery. After we crossed the border, artificially man-made as it was, we started to come upon duck ponds and houses on stilts (with the bottom bit filled in, in some cases) and spirit houses.

Phnom Penh, CambodiaThis place looked mighty familiar. Then I realised we were in Neak Loeung where I’d stayed in many years ago! The shops and markets were exactly where I’d left them. A comfort.

Neak Loeung ferry to Phnom Penh, CambodiaThen the entire coach followed several heavy vehicles onto a ferry to cross the Mekong. Motos and assorted vehicles milled about.

them three guys, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, CambodiaWhen we started seeing boards of these three guys at ever-increasing intervals, and then of the Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (នរោត្តម សីហមុនី), we knew we were near the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. “King Sihamoni gay” prompts Google when I type in the name of the former ballet dance instructor. Why would his sexual preferences be of interest to anyone, more than say, his political or philosophical preferences?

Yet, it is a question that none of us would think twice about asking in this day and age.

balloon man, Phnom Penh, CambodiaDidn’t think Andrew Potter’s chapter, The Authenticity Hoax: Perils of Transparency, had a terribly cohesive structure, and his conclusions seemed a little slap-dash. But he does identify viewpoints to be looking at issues from:

“Recognising that authenticity is a positional good with a built-in self-radicalising dynamic helps us make sense of a lot of the seemingly bizarre behaviour that manifests itself as authenticity-seeking. The fetish for the public display of emotion, which exploded into our popular culture with the death of Princess Diana and whose embers are tended by Oprah Winfrey’s cult of self-obsessed sentimentality, can be understood as a form of radically conspicuous authenticity.” “The Oprah Winfrey brand is built around a cult of authenticity through therapeutic self-disclosure, of the sort promoted by her frequent guest Dr. Phil.”

Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), Phnom Penh, CambodiaToul Tom Poung (Russian Market)

Andrew Potter goes on to dissect the James Frey A Million Little Pieces incident where Frey was found to have invented events in his memoir “in order to serve what [he] felt was the greater purpose of the book”. Oprah agreed with this saying that what impressed her was the “underlying and universal message of redemption at the heart of Frey’s tale”. The Oprah-ian world embraces the Rousseau-ian ideal that feelings are the touchstone of authenticity, not historically accurate facts. So it was odd that there was such a furore over his confession of fictionalising major parts of it.

Potter explains this through Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Rousseau recognised that the making of an authentic self is a group effort. You cannot just impose any old narrative you want onto the events of your life; the sotry has to seem plausible and sincere if it is to be accepted by others…[these vices of authenticity] include plagiarism, hypocrisy, and gossip.” [Comment: I’m not sure gossip is seen as such a sin in this parts!]

Mr. Bunnareth, Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Mr. Bunnareth, Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, CambodiaMr. Bunnareth at Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), probably the best iced coffee in Phnom Penh. Since his success though, several other iced coffee shops have set up next to him, forcing him to distinguish his business with newspaper cuttings, flags, and photographs

Joma coffee, Phnom Penh, Cambodiacoffee with the lovely J at Joma Bakery Cafe, a Western-style coffee import from, erm, Luang Prabang

Plagiarism
Potter suggests that in some instances, the plagiarist may not even admit that there was anything morally wrong with his actions if they were “an authentic outward expression of [the plagiarist’s] deepest feelings and creative impulses; it is “the appropriation of something that is a part of [their] true self”.

And what about the rise of the concept of intellectual property rights? This might stem from what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence” where artists are concerned that they are not authentic (that is, original, creative) enough, that they have been hindered by their influences and produce only something borrowed and derivative. So we “fight over credit for things”.

Pushing back against this is Lawrence Lessig who claims this stifles creativity and innovation and squanders the democratic potential of new technologies – “What’s at stake is our freedom – freedom to create, freedom to build, and, ultimately, freedom to imagine”.

However, Andrew Keen, in his The Cult of the Amateur, sees the internet as a “cesspool of ignorance, egoism, bad taste, and mob rule. He laments the loss of the professionalism, integrity, and authority of old…As far as he is concerned, there is nothing “democratic” about the new media. If anything they work to undermine democracy by helping spread propaganda and lies through fake videos, guerilla and viral marketing campaigns and the widespread use of “sock puppets”, which are fake online identities that are used to promote a cause or a product under the guise of independent support or endorsement. There are too many places to hide online, Keen argues, and what we are left with is not the democratic wisdom of crowds but an idiocratic mob rule, a cynical and infantilised political culture and a degenerate civil society.” [Comment: sounds like what the Singapore internet scene is like in this age.]

Cass Sunstein sees the internet as harming democracy due to the rise of the “Daily Me”, that is, the way the “internet permits highly personalised and customised information feeds that guarantee that you will be confronted only with topics that interest you; they screen out those that may bore, anger, or annoy you…[leading to] group polarization: when like-minded people find themselves speaking only with one another, they get into a cycle of ideological reinforcement where they end up endorsing positions far more extreme than the ones they started with…the blogosphere functions as a series of echo chambers, where every viewpoint is repeated and amplified to a hysterical pitch. As our politics moves online…we’ll end up with a public sphere that is partisan and extreme…The result…will be serious obstacles not merely to civility but also to mutual understanding”.

So this is a world where truth has ceased to have any relation to reality and is only what the self-contained ego feels to be true.  Keen and Sunstein conclude that “the ultimate goal of the new [Read-Write] culture is isolation, solitude, and narcissism” Potter disagrees and suggests instead that it is connectivity and “the perpetual and utterly transparent We of social networking” that is the taken to be the basis for authenticity.

dogs sniffing each other, Phnom Penh, CambodiaGossip
Authenticity in this culture is where everything is laid bare online for everyone to see, nothing is hidden, and everyone speaks his mind spontaneously without self-censorship, declining to observe social mores or standards of good taste.

“Our lives now resemble the teenaged prison called high school, where the predominant form of discourse is something known as gossip…Gossip is often defined as malicious or harmful talk about the private affairs of others…”

motorcycles! Phnom Penh, CambodiaPotter however defends gossip for serving to “expand our consciousness of what life is about in ways that are effectively inaccessible to other modes of inquiry”. Furthermore gossip “subverts traditional hierarchies: by cracking open the private sphere to general public scrutiny, gossip can be an instrument of egalitarianism and social leveling…we may want to call gossip a virtue of authenticity.” [Comment: but this fails to acknowledge the difference between repeating truths and repeating falsehoods]

Perhaps, he then says, “there is a flaw in the ideal of authenticity as complete disclosure”, but only because voluntary discretionary personal disclosure is “a way of building trust and fostering intimacy”, so the “Facebook-style habit of promiscuous disclosure very much misses the point” and makes such transparency much less valuable because it is shared with a wide audience.

He concludes: “But there’s no dignity in doing your job or remaining faithful simply because you have no option. Thus the end of privacy will also mark the end of our cultural adulthood. Surveillance is for criminals and pointless gossip is for children…”[Comment: this feels (ah, feeeelin’) like a long shot. as if he sensed (feeeeeeelin’) that total transparency at the expense of privacy was undesirable and just needed a reasonable rationale (but why not just feeeeeeeel). Most commentators, having pushed God out of the picture ab initio, struggle to align their consciences with their theories.]

monks in front of a coach, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore