Purple Magazine
— S/S 2013 issue 19

Welcome to the Spiritual Kingdom of Animals

Collage-truth n°18, 2012, 46 x 30 cm, courtesy Thomas Hirschhorn and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Slavoj Zizek well known for his radical style and post-Marxist criticism of the moral vacuum of global capitalism. Here the Slovene philosopher looks at nationalism, mass violence, and crime not only through the lens of modern politics and nihilism but also through the responsibility of art and poetry in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological.



Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city — rather sensible advice, judging from this post-Yugoslav experience, where ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams. True, Milosevic “manipulated” nationalist passions — but it was the poets who delivered him the stuff that lends itself to manipulation. They — the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians — were at the origin of it all when, back in the 1970s and early ’80s, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia, but also in other ex-Yugoslav republics. Instead of the military-industrial complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the poetic-military complex, personified by the twin figures of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist by profession, was not only a ruthless political and military leader, but also a poet. His poetry should not be dismissed as ridiculous — it deserves a close reading, since it provides a key to how ethnic cleansing functions. Here are the first lines of the untitled poem identified by the dedication “… For Izlet Sarajlic”:

“Convert to my new faith crowd
 I offer you what no one has had before
 I offer you inclemency and wine
 The one who won’t have bread will be fed by the light of my sun
 People nothing is forbidden in my faith
 There is loving and drinking
 And looking at the Sun for as long as you want
 And this godhead forbids you nothing
 Oh obey my call brethren people crowd”

The superego suspension of moral prohibitions is the crucial feature of today’s “postmodern” nationalism. Here, the cliché according to which passionate ethnic identification restores a firm set of values and beliefs in the confusing insecurity of a modern secular global society is to be turned around: nationalist “fundamentalism” rather serves as the operator of a secret, barely concealed You may! Without the full recognition of this perverse pseudo-liberating effect of today’s nationalism, of how the obscenely permissive superego supplements the explicit texture of the social symbolic law, we condemn ourselves to the failure of grasping its true dynamics.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the “silent weaving of the spirit”: the underground work of changing the ideological coordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then suddenly explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1970s and ’80s, so that when things exploded in the late ’80s, it was already too late, the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and collapsed in itself. Yugoslavia in the 1970s and ’80s was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon, who continues to walk above the precipice — he only falls down when, finally, he looks down and becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his legs. Milosevic was the first to force us all to really look down into the precipice.

To avoid the illusion that the poetic-military complex is a Balkan specialty, however, one should mention, at least in passing, Hassan Ngeze, the Karadzic of Rwanda who, in his newspaper Kangura, systematically spread anti Tutsi hatred and called for their genocide. It is all too easy to dismiss Karadzic and company as bad poets: other ex-Yugoslav nations (and Serbia itself) had poets and writers recognized as “great” and “authentic” who were also fully engaged in nationalist projects. And what about the Austrian Peter Handke, a classic of contemporary European literature, who demonstratively attended the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic? Almost a century ago, referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), has become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners) — perhaps such a reversal should not surprise us too much.

But why this rise in religiously (or ethnically) justified violence today? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Since great public causes can no longer be mobilized on grounds of mass violence — that is, war — and since our hegemonic ideology calls on us to enjoy life and to realize our Selves, it is difficult for the majority to overcome its revulsion at torturing and killing another human being. The large majority of people are spontaneously “moral”: killing another human being is deeply traumatic for them. So, in order to make them do it, a larger “sacred” Cause is needed, which makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religion or ethnic belonging fit this role perfectly. Of course there are cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, just for the sake of it, but they are rare exceptions. The majority needs to be “anesthetized” against an elementary sensitivity to the other’s suffering.

Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people do some good things; from today’s experience, one should rather stick to Steve Weinberg’s claim that while without religion good people would have been doing good things, and bad people bad things, only religion — or art, one should add — can make good people do bad things. Take the outstanding Danish documentary The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, which provides a unique and deeply disturbing insight into the ethical deadlock of global capitalism.

The film — shot in Medan, Indonesia, in 2007 — reports on a case of obscenity that reaches the extreme: a film within the film, made by Anwar Congo and his friends, who are now respected politicians, but were gangsters and death squad leaders playing a key role in the 1966 killing of around 2.5 million alleged Communist sympathizers, mostly ethnic Chinese. The Act of Killing is about “killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built.” After their victory, their terrible acts were not relegated to the status of “dirty secret,” the founding crime whose traces are to be obliterated — on the contrary, they boast openly about the details of their massacres (how to strangle a victim with a wire, how to cut a throat, how to rape a woman in a most pleasurable way…). In October 2007, Indonesian state TV produced a talk show celebrating Anwar and his friends; in the middle of the show, after Anwar says that their killings were inspired by gangster movies, the beaming moderator turns to the cameras and says: “Amazing! Let’s give Anwar Congo a round of applause!” When she asks Anwar if he fears the revenge of the victim’s relatives, Anwar answers: “They can’t. When they raise their heads, we wipe them out!” His henchman adds: “We’ll exterminate them all!” and the audience explodes into exuberant cheers. One has to see this to believe it is possible. But what makes The Act of Killing extraordinary is also the level of reflexivity between documentary and fiction — the film is, in a way, a documentary about the real effects of living a fiction:

“To explore the killers’ astounding boastfulness, and to test the limits of their pride, we began with documentary portraiture and simple re-enactments of the massacres. But when we realized what kind of movie Anwar and his friends really wanted to make about the genocide, the re-enactments became more elaborate. And so we offered Anwar and his friends the opportunity to dramatize the killings using film genres of their choice (western, gangster, musical). That is, we gave them the chance to script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people.”

Did the filmmakers discover the limits of the killers’ “pride”? They barely touched it when they proposed to Anwar that he play the victim of his tortures in a re-enactment; when a wire is placed around his neck, he interrupts the performance and says, “Forgive me for everything I’ve done.” But this is more a temporary relapse, which did not lead to any deeper crisis of conscience — his heroic pride immediately takes over again. Probably, the protective screen that prevented a deeper moral crisis was the very cinematic screen: as in their past real killings and torture, they experienced their activity as an enactment of their cinematic models, which enabled them to experience reality itself as a fiction. As great admirers of Hollywood (they started their careers as organizers and controllers of the black market, peddling cinema tickets), they role-played in the massacres they conducted, imitating a Hollywood gangster, cowboy or even a musical dancer.

Collage-truth n°8, 2012, 46 x 27 cm, courtesy Thomas Hirschhorn

Here the “big Other” enters, not only due to the fact that the killers modeled their crimes on cinematic imagery, but also and above all because of the much more important fact of society’s moral vacuum. What kind of symbolic texture (the set of rules which draw the line between what is publicly acceptable and what is not) a society must be composed of if even a minimal level of public shame (which would compel the perpetrators to treat their acts as a “dirty secret”) is suspended, and the monstrous orgy of torture and killing can be publicly celebrated even decades after having taken place, not even as an extraordinary and necessary crime for the public good, but as an ordinary, acceptable and pleasurable activity? The trap to be avoided here is, of course, the easy one of putting the blame either directly on Hollywood or on the “ethical primitiveness” of Indonesia. The starting point should rather be the dislocating effects of capitalist globalization, which, by undermining the “symbolic efficacy” of traditional ethical structures, creates such a moral vacuum.

However, the status of the “big Other” deserves a closer analysis here — let us compare The Act of Killing to an incident that drew a lot of attention in the US some decades ago: a woman was beaten and slowly killed by a violent perpetrator in the courtyard of a big apartment block in Brooklyn, New York; of the more than 70 witnesses, who clearly saw what was going on from their windows, not one called the police. Why not? As the later investigation established, the most prevalent excuse by far was that each witness thought someone else already had or surely would do it. This data should not be moralistically dismissed as a mere excuse for moral cowardice and egotistic indifference: what we encounter here is also the function of the big Other — this time not as Lacan’s “subject supposed to know,” but as what one could call “the subject supposed to call the police.” The fatal mistake of the witnesses of the slow Brooklyn killing was to misread the symbolic (fictional) function of the “subject supposed to call the police” as an empirical claim of existence, wrongly concluding that there must be at least one who effectively did call the police. They overlooked the fact that the function of the “subject supposed to call the police” is operative even if there is no actual subject who enacts it.

Does this mean that, through the gradual dissolution of our ethical substance, we are simply regressing to individualist egotism? Things are much more complex than that. We often hear that our ecological crisis is the result of our short-term egotism: obsessed with immediate pleasures and wealth, we forget about the common Good. However, it is here that Walter Benjamin’s notion of capitalism as religion becomes crucial: a true capitalist is not a hedonist egotist; he is, on the contrary, fanatically devoted to his task of multiplying his wealth, ready to neglect his health and happiness, not to mention the prosperity of his family and the well-being of the environment, for it. There is thus no need to evoke some high-ground moralism and to trash capitalist egotism — against this fanatical capitalist dedication, it is enough to evoke a good measure of simple egotistic and utilitarian concerns. In other words, the pursuit of what Rousseau calls the natural amour-de-soi requires a highly civilized level of awareness. This is why, contrary to what Alain Badiou claims, the subjectivity of capitalism is NOT that of the “human animal,” but rather a call to subordinate egotism to the self-reproduction of the Capital. (However, this does not mean that Badiou is simply wrong: the individual caught in global market capitalism necessarily perceives itself as a self-interested hedonist “human animal”; this self-perception is a necessary illusion.)

In other words, self-interested egotism is not the brutal fact of our societies but its ideology — the ideology philosophically articulated in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit toward the end of the chapter on Reason, under the name of “das geistige Tierreich” — the “spiritual kingdom of animals,” Hegel’s name for the modern civil society in which human animals are caught in self-interested interaction. As Hegel put it, the achievement of modernity was to allow “the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-sufficient extreme of personal particularity.” The reign of this principle makes possible civil society as the domain in which autonomous human individuals associate with each other through the institutions of a free-market economy in order to satisfy their private needs: all communal ends are subordinated to the private interests of individuals, they are consciously posited and calculated with the goal of maximizing the satisfaction of these interests. What matters for Hegel here is the opposition of private and common as perceived by those on whom Hegel relies (Mandeville, Smith), as well as by Marx: individuals perceive the common domain as something that should serve their private interests (like a liberal who thinks of the state as a protector of private freedom and safety), while individuals, in pursuing their narrow goals, effectively serve the communal interest. The properly dialectical tension emerges here when we become aware that the more individuals act egotistically, the more they contribute to the common wealth. The paradox is that when individuals want to sacrifice their narrow private interests and directly work for the common good, what suffers is the common good itself. Hegel loves to tell historical anecdotes about a good king or prince whose very dedication to the common good brought his country to ruins. The properly philosophical novelty of Hegel was to further determine this “contradiction” along the lines of the tension between the “animal” and the “spiritual”: the universal spiritual substance, the “work of all and everyone,” emerges as the result of the “mechanical” interaction of individuals. What this means is that the very “animality” of the self-interested “human animal” (the individual participating in the complex network of civil society) is the result of the long historical process of the transformation of medieval hierarchic society into modern bourgeois society. It is thus the very fulfillment of the principle of subjectivity — the radical opposite of animality — which brings about the reversal of subjectivity into animality.

Traces of this shift can be detected everywhere today, especially in the fast-developing Asian countries where capitalism exerts a most brutal impact. Bertolt Brecht’s “The Exception and the Rule” (a learning play written in 1929-30) tells the story of a rich Merchant who, with his porter (“coolie”), crosses the Yahi Desert (yet another of Brecht’s fictional Chinese places) to close an oil deal. When the two get lost in the Desert and their water supplies are running low, the Merchant mistakenly shoots the coolie, thinking he is being attacked when the coolie is actually offering him some of the water he still has left in his bottle. Later, in court, the Merchant is acquitted: the Judge concludes that the Merchant had every right to fear a potential threat from the coolie, so he was justified in shooting the coolie in self-defense regardless of whether there was an actual threat. Since the Merchant and his coolie belong to different classes, the Merchant had good reason to expect hatred and aggression from him — this is the typical situation, the rule, while the coolie’s kindness was an exception. Is this story yet another of Brecht’s ridiculous Marxist simplifications? No, not judging by reports from today’s real China:

“In Nanjing, half a decade ago, an elderly woman fell while getting on a bus. Newspaper reports tell us that the 65-year-old woman broke her hip. At the scene, a young man came to her aid; let us call him Peng Yu, for that is his name. Peng Yu gave the elderly woman 200RMB (at that time enough to buy three hundred bus tickets) and took her to the hospital. Then, he continued to stay with her until the family arrived. The family sued the young man for 136,419 RMB. Indeed, the Nanjing Gulou District Court found the young man to be guilty and ordered him to pay 45,876 RMB. The court reasoned, ‘according to common sense,’ that because Peng Yu was the first off the bus, in all probability he had knocked over the elderly woman. Further, he actually had admitted his guilt, the court reasoned, by staying with the elderly woman at the hospital. It being the case that a normal person would not be as kind as Peng Yu claimed he was.” (Personal communication by Michael Yuen.) Is this incident not exactly parallel to Brecht’s story? Peng Yu helped the old lady out of simple compassion or decency, but since such a display of goodness is not “typical,” not the rule (“a normal person would not be as kind as Peng Yu claimed he was”), it was interpreted by the court as a proof of Peng Yu’s guilt, and he was appropriately punished. Is this a ridiculous exception? Not so, according to the People’s Daily (the government newspaper), which in an online opinion poll asked a large sample of young people what they would do if they were to see a fallen elderly person: “87% of young people would not help. Peng Yu’s story echoes the surveillance of the public space. People would only help when a camera was present.” What such a reluctance to help signals is a change in the status of public space: “The street is an intensely private place and seemingly the words public and private make no sense.” In short, being in a public space does not entail being together with other unknown people — in moving among them, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with or recognition of them. In order to count as public, the space of my co-existence and interaction with others (or the lack of it) has to be covered by security cameras.

Another sign of this same change can be found at the opposite end of the spectrum from watching people die in public and doing nothing — the recent trend of public sex in hard-core porn. There are more and more films showing a couple (or more persons) engaged in erotic games up to full copulation in some heavily frequented public space (on a public beach, inside a streetcar or train, at a bus or train station, in the open space of a shopping mall…), and the interesting feature is that a large majority of foreigners who pass by (pretend to) ignore the scene — a minority throws a discreet glance at the couple, even fewer of them make a sarcastic obscene remark. Again, it is as if the copulating couple has remained in its private space, so that we should not be concerned by their intimacies.

This brings us back to Hegel’s “spiritual animal kingdom” — that is to say, who effectively behaves like this, passing by dying fellows in blessed ignorance or copulating in front of others? Animals, of course. This fact in no way entails the ridiculous conclusion that we are somehow “regressing” to the animal level. The animality with which we are dealing here — the ruthless egotism of each individual pursuing his/her private interests — is the paradoxical result of the most complex network of social relations (market exchange, social mediation of production), and the fact that individuals themselves are blinded to this complex network points toward its ideal (“spiritual”) character. In the civil society structured by the market, abstraction rules more than ever in the history of humanity. In contrast to nature, the market competition of “wolves against wolves” is thus the material reality of its opposite, of the “spiritual” public substance which provides the background and base for this struggle among private animals.

It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, to the culture of public confessions and to instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper that is disappearing. The person who displays on the Web his/her naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the Web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others. And, to get back to The Act of Killing, the same goes for Anwar and his colleagues: they are privatizing the public space in a sense that is much more threatening than economic privatization.

And, to return to the role of the artistic imagination in the enabling of real-life horrors — film noir in the case of Anwar — we should not be afraid to extend this claim to cover the highest of art. Here is Matsuo Basho’s best-known haiku (in the translation, the “kireji” or the “cutting word,” which marks a break in the poem — is rendered by “…” or “;”):

“Old pond… A frog jumps in Splash”

The true object is the splash-event (overlapping with the silence that sustains it?) There is no idealization in haiku, just the effect of sublimation where, no matter how “low,” a material act can give birth to the event. So we should not be afraid to imagine a much more vulgar version of a haiku focused on the same event — a friend from Japan informed me that there is a 20th-century variation on Basho’s splash-motif, which, precisely, should not be read as a parody:

Collage-truth n°49, 2012, 30 x 44,5 cm, courtesy Thomas Hirschhorn

“Toilet bowl with stale water… I sit on it Splash”

The three-line-rule of a haiku poem is well-justified: the first line renders the pre-event situation (a calm old pond, a bowl with calm water); kireji marks a cut into this inactivity, the intervention that disturbs peace and will generate the event (a frog jumps, I sit on a toilet bowl); and the last line names the fleeting event (the sound of a splash). In such an immaterial effect, the fleeting almost-nothing of the pure appearance overlaps with eternity; however, such a suspension of corporeal reality is profoundly ambiguous: it can also function as a screen that obfuscates the horrifying consequences of our acts. Recall the title of Robert Pirsig’s perennial best-seller of New Age philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; one can easily imagine a series of variations on the same motif: Zen and the art of sexual performance, or business success… up to Zen and the art of gentle warfare. Indeed, there exist books like this: Vernon Turner’s Soul Sword: The Way and Mind of a Zen Warrior — here are some lines from the back cover of the book:

“The power of the Warrior Mind is its ability to act from … a state of No Mind. As a mirror reflects objects without clinging to the images, the Warrior Mind is free to flow from one object to the next without impediment. From this state arises instinctive wisdom, the power that allows ordinary people to perform extraordinary feats. … It functions within us daily but is counteracted by the false mind and its endless projections. The task is to still the mind to the point where ‘the action and the actor [are] a seamless thread.’ Daily life is the battlefield for the Warrior Mind. The author shows us how to ‘flow into the affairs of the day… Soul Sword is an active meditation for those who wish to be in the world but not of it.’”

Within this mind state, the warrior no longer acts as a person; he is thoroughly de-subjectivized — or, as D.T. Suzuki himself put it: “It is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.” Does this description of killing not provide the ultimate case of the phenomenological attitude that, instead of intervening in reality, just lets things appear as they are? The sword itself does the killing; the enemy just appears and makes himself a victim — the warrior is in it for nothing, reduced to the passive observer of his own acts.

In the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorship in Brazil, the circle of secret policemen engaged in torturing political prisoners improvised a kind of private religion: a New Age Buddhist mixture based on the conviction that there is no reality, just a fragmented dance of illusory appearances… one can well see how this “religion” enabled them to endure the horror of what they were doing. No wonder then that, “struck by his leader’s cold demeanor and his utter ruthlessness toward their enemies, one of his comrades once compared Pol Pot with a Buddhist monk who had attained the ‘third level’ of consciousness: ‘You are completely neutral. Nothing moves you. This is the highest level.’” One should not dismiss this idea as an obscene false parallel: Pol Pot does come from the Buddhist cultural background, with its long tradition of militarist discipline. Along these lines, we can well invent yet another haiku whose third line renders the pure event of blood splashing from a body cut by a knife in the hand of an ethnic cleanser:

“Fat body wiggling in front of me The swing of my knife Splash!”

The point of these improvisations is not to engage in tasteless jokes, but to make us see that a truly enlightened person should be able to see a pure event even in such terrifying circumstances. From a broader perspective, this brings us to the topic of the ambiguous relationship between poetry and power. Boris Pasternak characterized his poem “The temper obstinate appeals…” (published in 1936 in the official daily Izvestija) as a “two-voiced fugue” about the poet (Pasternak himself), an obstinate recluse who eschews the public gaze and is shy of his own books, and Stalin, the “Kremlin recluse,” “not a man but deed incarnate,” who acts with “terrifying greatness” and nonetheless “has remained a human.” Although the poet is “consumed by this genius of action” and exists merely as its negligible pale echo, there is nonetheless a secret link that connects the two — Pasternak’s and Stalin’s knowledge of each other (this link was a fact: Stalin crossed out Pasternak’s name from the purge list prepared by the NKVDs scrawling on the paper “Do not touch this cloud dweller!”).

A brutally powerful leader who is a deed incarnate, who embodies the unconditional will to actualization, is a poet’s dream: Stalin was living out a poet’s dream, i.e., Stalin’s ego-ideal, the point of view from which he appeared to himself likable, was the poet’s gaze. Indeed, as a cynical CIA agent comments in the Hollywood political drama on the Nicaragua war Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983), people fall in love with poets, poets fall in love with revolutionary leaders who fall in love with themselves, and there we are… Pasternak’s 1934 poetic encounter with Stalin thus maybe provides an unexpected answer to the line from Hoelderlin’s “Brot und Wein,” from which Heidegger endeavored to draw a lot of mileage: Wozu Dichter in durftiger Zeit? Why poets in a hollow (sparse, scanty) age? To obfuscate this very real hollow, to produce myths that can serve as the screen for its horrors. It is one of the commonplaces of 20th-century opinion (shared by many philosophers) to blame philosophy for laying the ground for totalitarian horrors: from totality to totalitarianism, from Plato to NATO — but is poetry not also to blame? Weren’t there — as we have already seen — behind every nationalist brutality, poets concocting national myths? So what if Plato was right here? What if he did stir up a sensitive nerve with his idea of throwing the poets out of the city? Poets DO lie, poetic mimesis DOES entangle us in the interpassive game of practicing something we do not really believe in, of experiencing emotions we know are not ours: we are affected, although we know it is just a fiction. So what if, far from just mistrusting emotions, Plato was rather disturbed by the weird emotions that are not ours but make us react as if they were ours? Let us take another, perhaps unexpected, example — here from Afghanistan is the first strophe of Samiullah Khalid Sahak’s poem “Humanity”:

“Everything has gone from the world,
 The world has become empty again.
 Human animal.
 Humanity animality.
 Everything has gone from the world,
 I don’t see anything now.
 All that I see is
 My imagination.”

If nothing else, one can say that these lines (with the notable Badiou-sounding expression “human animal”) are not simple war or religious propaganda. No wonder then that when the volume The Poetry of the Taliban appeared, it was denounced as propaganda that renders the murderous enemy respectable by humanizing these “fascist, murdering thugs who suppress women and kill people without mercy if they do not agree with them,” as Robert Kemp put it. Understanding liberals made the same point about humanizing, but from the opposite end, as a good feature: William Dalrymple, for example, praised the book for “humanizing and giving voice to the aspirations, aesthetics, emotions and dreams of the fighters of a much-caricatured and still little-understood resistance movement.” What we should problematize is the premise underlying both approaches: the incompatibility between brutal terror and authentic poetic spirit — the sad lesson is that they do go together.

What then can poetry do here? We usually take a subject’s speech with all its inconsistencies as an expression of his/her inner turmoil, ambiguous emotions, etc.; this holds even for a literary work of art: the task of psychoanalytic reading is supposed to be to unearth the inner psychic turmoil that found its coded expression in the work of art. Something is missing in such a classic account: speech does not only register or express a traumatic psychic life; the entry into speech is in itself a traumatic fact (“symbolic castration”). What this means is that we should include on the list of traumas speech that tries to cope with the traumatic impact of speech itself. The relationship between psychic turmoil and its expression in speech should thus also be turned around: speech does not simply express/articulate psychic turmoil; at a certain key point, psychic turmoil itself is a reaction to the trauma of dwelling in the “torture-house of language.”

Not only does man dwell in the “prison-house of language” (the title of Fredric Jameson’s early book on structuralism), he dwells in a torture-house of language: the entire psychopathology deployed by Freud, from conversion-symptoms inscribed in the body up to total psychotic breakdowns, are scars of this permanent torture, so many signs of an original and irremediable gap between subject and language, so many signs that man cannot ever be at home in his own home. This is what Heidegger ignores: this dark torturing other side of our dwelling in language — and this is why there is also no place for the Real of jouissance in Heidegger’s edifice, since the torturing aspect of language concerns primarily the vicissitudes of libido. This is also why, in order to get the truth to speak, it is not enough to suspend the subject’s active intervention and let language itself speak — as Elfriede Jelinek put it with extraordinary clarity: “Language should be tortured to tell the truth.” It should be twisted, denaturalized, extended, condensed, cut and reunited, made to work against itself. Language as the “big Other” is not an agent of wisdom to whose message we should attune ourselves, but a place of cruel indifference and stupidity. The most elementary form of torturing one’s language is called poetry — imagine what a complex form like the sonnet does to language: it forces the free flow of speech into a Procustes’ bed, a fixed shape of rhythm and rhymes…

So what about Heidegger’s procedure of listening to the soundless word of language itself, of bringing out the truth that already dwells in it? No wonder late Heidegger’s thinking is poetic — recall the means he uses to do this: can one imagine a torture more violent than what he does in, say, his famous reading of Parmenides’s proposition “thinking-speaking and being are the same?” To extract the intended truth from it, he has to refer to literal meanings of words (legein as gathering), to counter-intuitively displace the accent and scansion of the sentence, to translate single terms in a strongly interpretative descriptive way, etc. From this perspective, the late Wittgensteinian “ordinary language philosophy,” which perceives itself as a medical cure for language, correcting the wrong use of ordinary language that gives rise to “philosophical problems,” wants to eliminate precisely the “torturing” of language that forces it to deliver truth (remember Rudolph Carnap’s famous critique of Heidegger from the late 1920s, which claims that Heidegger’s ratiocinations are based on the wrong use of “nothing” as a substantive).

Does the same not go for cinema? Does cinema also not force its visual material to tell the truth through torture? First, there was Eisenstein’s “montage of attractions,” the mother of all torturers: a violent cutting of continuous shots into fragments, which are then re-united in a thoroughly artificial way, and the no less violent reduction of the whole body or scene to close-ups of “partial objects,” which float around in the cinematic space, cut off from the organic Whole to which they belong. Then there is Tarkovsky, Eisenstein’s great enemy, who replaced the Eisensteinian frantic montage with its opposite, the stretching-out of time, a kind of cinematic equivalent of the “rack,” the classic torturing machine made to stretch the victim’s limbs. One can thus well characterize Tarkovsky’s polemic against Eisenstein as a polemic of one torturer with his professional colleague about the use of different devices…

Once, when I first presented these ideas, I was told that if you start torturing language you sooner or later end up torturing real people. I think the exact opposite is true: the ultimate choice we, humans, face is: either you are ready to torture language or you will end up torturing people. Violence needs poetry to become palpable for the people who practice it, and poetry also needs and practices violence — but a radically different one. The real violence of terrorizing and torturing people needs a poetry that deprives it of its horror and transforms it into a sublime ethical (patriotic) act. Poetic violence targets and undermines the very sublime greatness of patriotic and other ideological myths, which serve to legitimize real violence.


[Table of contents]

S/S 2013 issue 19

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