David Garcia on Sat, 15 Mar 2003 08:32:58 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Zizek and the Real

   Slajov Zizek begins his recent volume "Welcome to the Desert of the
   Real" with an extraordinary anecdote in which Brecht can be found
   waving encouragement to a column of Soviet tanks on its way to crush a
   workers up-rising. Zizek goes on to explain that it was "The harshness
   of the violence as such that was perceived and endorsed" by Brecht "as
   a sign of authenticity.."
   Zizek identifies this anecdote as an exemplary moment in what he sees
   as *the* key feature of the twentieth century" "the passion for the
   Throughout this opening chapter"s brilliant display of macho
   histrionics we are frequently reminded that the royal road to the Real
   (he always capitalizes the R) is to be reached through extreme
   violence He is at pains to contrast this "direct experience of the
   Real" with mundane, "every day social reality". He emphasizes that "To
   peel away the deceptive layers of reality" we may sometimes be
   required to pay the price of "extreme violence". Reading this we  hear
   echoes of Lenin (a figure greatly admired by Zizek), responding to the
   second congress of soviets abolition of the death penalty by declaring
   "nonsense, how can you make a revolution without executions"
   Impermissible weakness" pacifist illusion".
   A more timid intellectual than Zizek might have taken pains to avoid
   "peeling off" the one "layer" which might have obscured the dimension
   sexual politics at the heart of this vision. But he is no sissy, as we
   discover later in the chapter when he rhetorically asks "is not the
   ultimate figure of the passion for the Real the option we get on
   hardcore websites to observe the inside of a vagina from the vantage
   point of a tiny camera at the top of a penetrating dildo?" He then
   declares this the "extreme point".. "when we get too close to the
   desired object, erotic fascination turns into disgust at the Real of
   bare flesh" oh dear..
   Later in the chapter he states his position even less ambiguously
   (again in terms of penetration) when he begins a sentence: "The
   authentic-twentieth century passion for penetrating the Real Thing
   (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblance's
   which constitutes our reality..."
   So have I understood it correctly? The vagina or the destructive Void
   as the Real which we moderns (men I suppose) long to penetrate as
   violently as possible. Or am I missing something?
   Of course by such a literal reading of so serious, influential and
   savvy thinker, must be missing the point. Undoubtedly a close reading
   of his constant companions Lacan and Freud, would illuminate this
   bleak Schopenhauerian/Nietzscheian landscape not as blind testorone
   driven lunacy but as the courageous articulation of a shared and all
   to human pathological symptom. After all didn"t Zizek entitle an
   earlier volume of film theory "Enjoy Your Symptom"? To do otherwise
   condemns us to the fate of spineless Nietzscheian "last men".
   Up close and Personal
   Now I must declare a personal interest, and as I do so I know I must
   tread very very warily, I am on dangerous even queasy territory, but
   here goes; in contrast to Zizek"s hardcore website, for many of us,
   being up close and personal to an actual (not a digital) vagina might
   constitute another version of the "ultimate figure of the passion for
   the Real"; also violent but generative rather than destructive. I am
   referring to that everyday but far from mundane experience which is
   witnessing the birth of our own child.
   I say our child, to emphasize the *passion* in this passion Real, a
   passion which refuses to objectify. Of course as the man in the
   partnership, the birth experience itself is not mine. I am a witness,
   but a far from impartial one.
   Once the birthing itself has run its course and I have been allowed to
   cut the chord and find myself holding my infant girl, I encounter the
   Real in another sense, a sense closer to the everyday reality which
   Zizek frequently disparages. I can only describe this in terms of a
   unique sensation of "weight", at once infinitely light and very very
   heavy. At that moment my daughter is still light enough to be borne in
   the palm of one hand but the sensation is overwhelmingly the weight of
   Responsibility. This newly minted relationship is no quid pro quo; for
   a long while it must be all give.
   This micro-narrative of "every day social reality" is not  about
   production but *reproduction* and if we are allowed to experience this
   process and subsequent parenting to the full, it might be here that
   reality and the Real might meet and settle some differences.
   That Queasy Feeling
   A new (or revised) Realism or Naturalism might involve a polemical
   stance (not towards those who choose to depart from the conventional
   pathways of production and reproduction) but to those like Zizek whose
   words "demean the worth of ordinary human desire and fulfillment".
   So why do I feel so queasy? Why is this is such dangerous territory?
   Because this version of the Real is far to close to the kind of
   "naturalism" or "the normal" so beloved by the powerful who are always
   invoking "the family" as the master signifier, accompanied by the
   mythical innocence of "children", as a trump that brooks no argument.
   Children are cynically and ruthlessly deployed by all sides. We even
   saw this in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when children with AIDS
   were routinely referred to as "innocent victims".
   Parents are easily tempted, the difficulties and frustrations that are
   a part and parcel of active parenting sometimes make it hard to avoid
   a suspiciously puffed up sense of one"s own importance, the righteous
   indignation when people "just don"t understand".
   To use the experience of having children in any argument, in any
   philosophy, is to risk an infinite variety of subtle and less subtle
   forms of exploitation. From politicians posing with their families to
   people who take their kids on political demonstrations and hand them
   placards. One might even include Dickens who exploited Victorian
   sentimentality about childhood innocence to battle for the
   transformation of industrial working conditions. And of course, to
   complete the reflexive loop, it includes the use I am now making of my
   own children as I write.
   And there is even worse! the use of this socially sanctioned
   experience might be seen as somehow denigrating those who choose not
   to have children or by an affirmative invocation of what is sanctified
   as "normal" to appear to be casting aspersions against the infinite
   varieties and extremes of alternative sexual preference. But given all
   these caveats I am still left with the ultimate hypothetical. I am
   left wondering how the ideological and philosophical legacy supporting
   the frameworks within which we are able to think, and have our being,
   might have been different if they had been built by men and women who
   had been real partners in the reproductive dimension of human life.
   In her recent essay Looking at War, Susan Sontag quotes from Virginia
   Woolf"s reflections on the roots of war published in 1938 Three
   Guineas, a book based on replies to an eminent lawyer who had asked
   "how in your opinion are we to prevent war"? "Woolf begins by
   observing that a truthful dialogue between them may not be possible.
   For though they belong to the same class "the educated class" a vast
   gulf seperates them: the lawyer is a man and she is a woman. Men make
   war. Men (most men) like war, or at least they find "some glory, some
   neccessity, some satisfaction in fighting that women (most women) do
   not seek or find". Later towards the end of the essay Sontag asks
   whether there "is an antidote to the perenial seductiveness of war?"
   she goes on to ask whether this is a question a woman is more likely
   to pose than a man?" to which she answers in a less than confident
   parenthesis, "(probably yes)". Instead of asking why that answer is
   "probably yes", the subject of the essay, photography and war, leads
   her instead to ask another question "Could one be mobilised actively
   to oppose war by an image?". A question to which she has no convincing
   The unfinished feminist project may not have made the personal into
   the political but one of its consequenses is to have offered men
   greater possibilities than ever before for participation in the
   generative dimension of the Real and the accompanying investment of
   emotion and time in future life. We might begin to imagine the ways in
   which this fact, over time, might change the ways in which we think
   about reality and the way we think about thinking. We might even hope
   that it serves as counterweight to our innevitable fascination with
   the ever present destructive Void, the Real as Thanatos with all its
   accompanying death cults from whatever source.

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