Fantasies of Europe: Žižek against Žižek

I’ve been thinking recently about the links between Žižek’s Eurocentrism and the role that Christianity plays in his work, and in doing so I’ve been returning to some of his earlier work, in which he’s less interested, as of late, in the notion of a Europe under threat from the fantasies of its external others and more interested in the ways in which his native Balkans get caught up in the fantasies of Western Europe. I was struck, repeatedly, by the contrast between Žižek’s analysis of the Balkans’ relationship to Europe and his recent discussions of European attitudes to immigration. I wish that Žižek would read Arun Kundnani’s account of the West’s role in creating “Islamist terror”; I wish he would read Christine Delphy’s discussion of the role that feminism has long played in French racism. But mostly I wish he would recognise in his own discussions of the Muslim world the complex and destructive fantasies he is able to see in Western Europe’s attitude to the Balkans. Žižek has a tendency to lazily repeat more or less racist stereotypes about Muslims, migrants and non-Europeans. What his own work suggests is that actually this makes a lot of sense, because his discussion of these issues is precisely an Orientalist fantasy of a world in which what everybody else most strongly desires is to become European. It’s frustrating that he cannot recognise this hypocrisy. Without further comment, then, here are some selections from Žižek’s discussions of Europe and the Balkans, alongside his recent discussions of Europe and migration from the Muslim-majority world:

Whose fantasy? #1

Recall the fascination exerted on Western democrats by the disintegration of Socialism in the late 1980s: the key dimension of what fascinated the West was not, as may have appeared, the scene of Eastern Europeans rediscovering the values of democracy with an enthusiasm that was conspicuously absent in the West, but, rather, the fact that the Eastern Europeans protesting against the rule of the Communist nomenklatura were them­selves fascinated by the West, looking towards it – the true fantasmatic object of the West was this Eastern gaze itself, able to see in the West what people there no longer saw: a land of freedom and democracy….
For They Know Not What They Do, c.

In escaping their war-torn homelands, the refugees are possessed by a dream. Refugees arriving in southern Italy do not want to stay there: many of them are trying to get to Scandinavia. The thousands of migrants in Calais are not satisfied with France: they are ready to risk their lives to enter the UK. Tens of thousands of refugees in Balkan countries are desperate to get to Germany. They assert their dreams as their unconditional right, and demand from the European authorities not only proper food and medical care but also transportation to the destination of their choice. There is something enigmatically utopian in this demand: as if it were the duty of Europe to realise their dreams – dreams which, incidentally, are out of reach of most Europeans (surely a good number of Southern and Eastern Europeans would prefer to live in Norway too?).
The Non-Existence of Norway

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west. (Those who remain behind try to create there miserable copies of western prosperity, like the “modernised” parts in every third world metropolis, in Luanda, in Lagos, etc, with cafeterias selling cappuccinos, shopping malls, and so on).
The Cologne attacks were an obscene version of carnival. Read the rest of this entry »

Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

Why Binge-Watchable Serial Drama is Not a New Genre

In the Poetics, Aristotle devotes significant attention to two modes of storytelling: tragedy and epic. The former is a self-contained, naturally unfolding story, which Aristotle views as the best form of narrative art. He is so fascinated with tragedy, in fact, that he claims that epic is basically trying but failing to be what tragedy is — it wants to be telling such a taut, immersive story, but it gets distracted by a need to bulk out the text with inessential episodes.

In my view, Aristotle misconstrues what epic is trying to do. The episodes aren’t a distraction, they’re the whole point. The overarching story provides a narrative and thematic frame for the episodes, allowing multiple stories to come together into a larger, cohesive whole. The frame narrative is necessarily sparse and even boring, as Aristotle’s famous reductive summary of the Odyssey illustrates, but it’s necessary to keep the episodes from being purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments.

At its best, binge-watchable serial drama is trying to be an epic. Within each season, we have an overarching plot that makes room for several narratively and thematically related episodes. The story of Don Draper’s secret identity gives us a window into the worlds of Peggy and all the other beloved supporting cast, just as Tony Soprano’s quest to become the undisputed boss opens up a narrative world full of fascinating characters.

I’ve written before about Main Character Syndrome, the phenomenon of viewers becoming bored and even resentful of the main character of the framing narrative, and I believe that the fundamentally epic structure of binge-watchable serial drama explains why that is such a constant pitfall. It’s a difficult balance to keep the framing narrative thin enough to allow for rich episodic side-trips but compelling enough that you don’t get impatient with it. Arguably even Homer fails on this point — once it comes time to settle accounts with the primary story of Odysseus coming home to claim what’s his (the beginning of book 13), it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

The balance is easier to strike within a single season, as the Mad Men and Sopranos examples make clear. As the narrative is indefinitely extended, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain tension and interest in the framing device, and the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a soap opera — a sequence of purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments. Even in the best case, each season must perform a “retcon” to reopen the completed stories of the previous seasons and make the new larger whole feel cohesive. In my opinion, Mad Men was more successful at this than The Sopranos, but the seams are always going to show to some extent. Again, we could see Homer as falling victim to this same problem with his attempt at a sequel to the Iliad — a problem that becomes all the more difficult when Virgil steps in as the show-runner for the third season.

In short, then, binge-watchable serial drama is not a new narrative genre. When it’s done well, it’s epic, and when it’s done poorly, it’s a soap opera. An epic show may devolve into a soap opera, and I suppose it’s conceivable that a formless soap opera could really get its act together and pull off an epic season. I can’t think of an example of the latter, though the former is well-attested.

What’s increasingly getting lost, however, is the art of the self-contained episode — all the moreso now that movies are trying to reinvent the wheel of serialized TV drama instead of sticking to their more natural competency of self-contained stories that at their best reach the coherence and dramatic tension of tragedy.

Against strategic primary voting

I’ll vote for literally any Democrat in the general election, up to and including Satan himself or even Rahm Emanuel. But I just don’t see the benefit of “strategically” voting for a candidate I disagree with in the primary, due to some belief in “electability.” That is a purely speculative property. I don’t have the information necessary to decide that, and maybe no one does. Barack Obama sure seemed unelectable for a lot of common-sense reasons, but lo and behold, he actually got elected.

In any case I don’t trust the people who are trying to convince me of their personal theories of “electability.” Too much American political discourse takes place in those weird speculative meta-levels, where we’re supposed to choose the person we think other people will choose, or the person who will protect us from someone else. Every living American adult should be aware of the blackmail involved in the latter — and should be familiar with the disappointing results. Saving us from the worst looks an awful lot like the worst itself sometimes.

And again, we do not and cannot know for sure whether someone will actually win the election or protect us against the worst. What we do know for sure is each candidate’s policy proposals, and I think we should vote based on what we know instead of on our hunches about what other people (whose political preferences we don’t share or really understand) will think about the candidate at some future date.

The presidential candidate isn’t just a presidential candidate — they’re the leader of the party, who sets the agenda. Voting in the primary means voting on the direction of the party. If the Democratic Party is going to ask our opinion on that, we should give it to them sincerely, instead of psyching ourselves out through some ill-conceived 11-dimensional chess.

On circular firing squads

It is often observed that the left forms circular firing squads — incidents where internecine struggle does serious damage to the cause. When this issue comes up, the point is most frequently to blame some other individual or group for starting a circular firing squad. This view of the situation seems to presuppose that people just up and decide to form circular firing squads and could stop doing so simply by up and deciding not to.

Less frequent are analyses of the structural roots of the circular firing squad phenomenon. And it is a structural rather than personal issue. An honest appraisal of the history of radical politics in the modern world will indicate that the threat of a circular firing squad has always been in the air — from the Terror that arose in the wake of the French Revolution, up to the various “purges” that have been endemic in Communist regimes. From a certain perspective, of course, there is little ground for comparison between mass deportation to Gulags and blocking each other on Twitter, but it is not sheerly coincidental that people reach for the imagery of “purges” in the latter incidents.

In The Structure of World History, Karatani tries to account for this eternal recurrence of the purge. Essentially he claims that it stems from the attempt to carry out a radical revolution “in one country.” Read the rest of this entry »

Por qué nos encantan los sociópatas

Spanish Sociopaths

Why We Love Sociopaths has been translated into Spanish. I like the cover image, complete with Walter White and his gas mask. Extract and TOC available at the link — it’s a strange sensation to read my own words in translation, after having spent so much time on the other direction. Thanks to Albert Fuentes for what I can only assume is excellent work.

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