The De-erotized Ideology of Pornography

Many years have now passed since the Western world proclaimed “sexual liberation”, when the dawn of pleasure would break. I am however afraid that today, this philosophical notion is profoundly poverty-stricken, and lack some of the substance matters when it comes to the phenomenology of sexuality.
I would like to propose the idea that sexuality in the West, is not really a topic of sexuality but rather of sexual ideology. The politically correct approach to any sexual encounter in our contemporary time is in effect “pornographic”. This may sound like nuts, so the argument is in need of some deeper elaboration.

First of all, it must be clear that sexuality has a deeply cultural side to it. Regarding the cultural aspect of sexuality, there is an apparent example of the contextuality of sexuality that I believe every Swede can relate to. That of the American fantasy of Sweden as the paradise of sexual promiscuity par excellence. This fantasy dates back to Bergman movies where families attend the sauna together, go to the beach, and so on; all completely naked. And has ever since been fueled by Hollywood stereotypes of Swedish women. What the American audience failed to see in this regard was the cultural context. At the time when these Bergman films were recorded, the Swedish “body”, in a sense, was completely de-eroticized. As such, from a Swedish perspective there was nothing erotic about nude bathing. And therefore, not in the sphere of sexual promiscuity. This cultural misunderstanding may also explain why people such as Julian Assange has described Sweden as a culture of sexual regression. Having made a journey from the most sexually liberated countries in the world, to become, in his peculiar words “the Saudi Arabia of feminism”. This is what cultural imperialism feels like. I on the other hand, would not blame feminism for this so called “regression”, but rather blame the sexual liberation itself.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, we may have to turn things around a little bit. Sexual desire always seem to operate in the same manner as an elastic rubber band. If you stretch it long enough it snatches back at full rigour. Not to mention the Victorian era in England, which might have been the most perverted bedrock of eroticized literature we have seen in modern history. For example, if the leg of a chair has to be covered in fabric in order to safeguard from sexual desires, it might be the case that those very desires are not prevented but rather fueled by that very procedure. Sexual restraint becomes self-annihilating. The less erotica, the more the spectrum of the erotic will expand. Everything could in principle be erotic. This had the peculiar effect that the British could not translate a single page of foreign literature without adding some perversion to it, such as the “slight” misinterpretation of the word “Haram” (“forbidden”, among other things referring to the part of a Muslim home exclusively for family members, where women unleashed their hair) with “Harem”, in the sense of the word we most usually attribute it. Thereby believing that every Muslim home had a “Harem”.

Further, “protestant sexual ethics” has always been deeply inmeshed with the phenomenon of guilt, and for a more contemporary viable notion; “hangover guilt”. It is my absolute conviction that this phenomenon does not exist in, for example, catholic sexual ethics. A protestant subject is always subject to the individual relationship between “God” (in this case some kind of big socio-collective Other) and has to mortify his flesh every Sunday to throw off all the outrageous sins committed during a late night Saturday. In other words, you are allowed to enjoy, but only in so far as you at least regret it.

Within catholic ethics, contrary to the sexual restraint ordered by the Catholic Church, it works in the same rubber-band-logics. Since your guilt is ultimately at the hand of others, il padre to be specific, you can engage in bodily sins with the sound conviction that you will be unconditionally forgiven at the Sunday confession. Ave Maria! No need to torture your soul with a day of mortification. Therefore, sexual liberation, in the protestant sense, is a sexual liberation founded on the very condition of you not being able to enjoy it. Social control reasserts itself at the level of individual guilt and re-establishes the harmony of Victorianism.

This interpretation finds some compelling support in the Durex Global Sex Survey about “percentage of people having sex weekly by country”. It points in the direction of “often-thought-of-as-sexually-restrained” cultures are actually making the best efforts. The percentage in Russia and Greece (both within the orthodox Christian sphere) are 80 and 87 %, closely followed by catholic Italy and Poland (76 %), while the same number in United States and United Kingdom is 53 and 55 %. And for Japan, only 37 %. Adding to this, only a miserable 15 % in Japan states that they are satisfied by sex, which is the lowest number in the entire world. Further, when it comes to the highest number of sexual partners, “surprisingly”, Turkey is on top of the list with an average of 14,5 sexual partners per person.

Further, just to once and for all punctuate the American fantasy of the sexually promiscuous Sweden. When it comes to the numbers of “that thing” per year, Greece (the world number one) has an average of 138 times, the U.S. does it about 113 times, while Sweden barely make it 92 times. In other words, not too much sexual promiscuity in the sexually liberated Sweden then.

This necessarily evokes a Žižekian point that can be repeated relentlessly; that the ideological turf is always an invertion of the interior sublime. And this takes us to my main point, that our sexual ideology within a culture of “sexual freedom” is strictly speaking pornographic.

For example, it is often said that pornography promotes a skewed perspective on sex. I would like to flip things around, and this is definitely not a defence of pornography. Anyway, if you think deeply about it, is it not rather the standard Hollywood-style sex scene that promotes a skewed perspective on sex?

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Bring to mind love scenes from films such as Titanic or Pearl Harbour. In which the loving couple almost soar over one another in a humid slow-motion environment. Going on for hours in an astonishingly creative repertoar of movements. Still, not a single “dirty detail” is displayed for you, and it is almost as if you are about to witness something magical.

Then bring to mind films by the Danish film director Lars von Trier, such as Antichrist or The Idiots. His films try to combine a romantic approach to love scenes with plain physical details, often depicting penetrations directly, and so on. It’s simply stupid penetrative repetitive movements over and over again, but nonetheless, just probably closer to the reality of sexual intercourse than the godlike romanticism of Hollywood.

My point however, besides the skewedness of the former, is that the Hollywood-style sex scene is, phenomenologically, the one we keep in mind when we engage in sexual intercourse. We act extracorporeal, as if our bodies are recorded. In this manner, the intercourse itself turns fictional, and the bodily pleasures themselves have to fit the manuscript and are not at the center of attention. In this sense, sex is effectively pornographic. A generation of Sex and the City viewers has brought us to a point where there is no sexual tension but the need to create a pleasant scene, for collectors of episodes (in Zygmunt Baumans words). Sex then increasingly turns into what Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek calls “masturbation with a real partner”, or de-subjectivized sex. The partner is turned into a masturbatory prop.

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But the argument has even more depth to it than this. The postmodern death of the self, as described by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, has also brought about a spectacle-and-image-logic that makes everything superficial to the degree that it could be replaced and copied infinitely. Our “wear and tear” habits thus operate in the realm of love as well. Just measure the distance between Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights with any recent Western narrative of love. It is obvious that every subject, being fatally and melancholically in love in the spirit of Wuthering Heights; would undoubtedly classify as serious stalkers today. Whenever love becomes too overwhelming according to contemporary discourse, it is at best sickening, at worst plainly dangerous. Who knows what kind of outrageous choices a person might realize in a state of love.

Therefore, according to popular wisdom, it is better to obviate as many question marks as possible before attending a date. Dating sites can manage this need very firmly, making sure you are not mismanaging your economic choices, as a kind of postmodern neo-medieval “matrimonial service”, where, in the words of Žižek: “people can fall in love without the fall”. And this is meant to be romantic.

What is puzzling about this is of course that there is a general tendency to try to eliminate tension. And is it not the case, that the sexual tension (total uncertainty) is all excitement there is to romantic love and sex?

Once again, the phenomenology of sexual ideology as a kind of inward mirror might serve as an example. It is for example often thought that sexually conservative people are not worth the effort if you are really looking for sexual activities. But, as said before, what is expressed at face value is more than often the complete opposite to what lures underneath. Or absurdly plainly speaking, people are liars. Think for example of a flirtatious situation in which the other person states “I am a bit prude”, just to ruin your expectations. Do not be fooled, to my interpretation, this always means serious action ahead. What need is there to express prudeness if you are really prude. Just as the old Freudian joke goes: “Why do you tell me that you are going to Krakow when you are really going to Krakow?”

I have heard that even the CIA uses these psychoanalytical techniques when interrogating their tortured subjects. Also, I think Coco Chanel intended something similar when she wrote: “A woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed.” Following this logic, by contrast, a person that openly states being sexually promiscuous is always, in the aftermath, proven to be as ravingly boring. The tension is then towed away and the act becomes completely predictable. Therefore, the so called free dialogue on sex, sexual freedom of the West, and all the other banal subjects of sexuality that we are constantly exposed to through the spectacle and image of mass culture only serves the function of banalization and control by exclusion of every tension. Furthermore, the dialogue on sexuality in popular culture, that at first glance seem very liberated from taboos, is in effect also restrained by the manuscript of the (pornographic) Hollywood-style sex act. The only difference that the discourse is obliged to address are those of orientation. So, you would be greatly surprised if you ever visit a dating site solely intended for sexual encounters (which I have only done for scientific reasons, of course); that the kind of desires expressed in individually posted ads on these kind of sites can be breathtakingly outrageous, perverse, dirty and crazy. The tensions arising from this mosaic of sexual desires are certainly threatening to any enlightened dialogue on sexuality – and that is why they are so popular, I think.

Have you noticed that despite all the sexual education we receive in the West, in contrast to the “developing world”, we are still on top of the list when it comes to desist protection. Norway are in fact taking the lead. Let me propose that what we really seek is sin, and unprotected sex might just be one of the last bastions of sexual sins we can enjoy.

Concludingly, tension in this sexually enlightened context (the gardeners regime of popular culture) is the equivalent of “horrible” uncertainty. And it goes exactly the same way with love. If you can clearly state a rational explanation to why you love a person, it is certainly the fact that you do not love at all. Nonetheless, popular wisdom has it that we need to know the exact reason for our pursuit of love.

Owing to these factors, the revolution of sexual freedom in the West, might just be a snake eating its own tail over a larger perspective of time.

Think for example about the almost total taboo on “the body” in sexual discourse. It is as if sexuality is no longer simply about sexual identity and orientation, and preferential “turn-ons”, but rather a kind of discursive attitude of bodily integrity trying to escape every reference to forbidden fruits.

In this regard, let me make some examples of the limits of this approach. Think for instance about the phenomenon of sex chat through writing alone. I have of course not done it myself, but a friend of mine told me everything about it. Anyways, is it not almost a fact that sex chat would be regarded as the most suitable way of sexual intercourse for any postmodern subject. Bodies is retracted from the scene, no smells, sweats, and hideous groans, all you got is a kind of discursive sex. Now, the interesting part with sex chat is that if you engage in sexual activities in this way, through words and imagination alone, you will notice that it is absolutely impossible to avoid words that signify certain eroticized body parts, which are also gender specific. How for instance would you linguistically portray a vaginal penetration without mention of words specific to a distinct sex? A paradox is revealed in which imagined sex is more “bodily” than physical sex.

This is where we eat our tail. Because, is it rather not in the physical reality of sexual activities the place where you can actually avoid mention of these severely politicized concepts, such as “that thing” and “that thing”. Bingo! No need to talk about it when your bodies speak for themselves. Then you simply execute the act of sex in its vulgar bodily sense while maintaining a politically correct and proper distance towards the discourse of differences between the sexes and so on, simply by not talking or linguistically narrativize it at all. But while doing it through the mediation of text, which should be the proper postmodern way of doing it, then it is simply impossible. Notwithstanding your intentions, you are forced into deployment of some kind of “feminist blasphemy”.

Concludingly, sex itself, in our Western society, is effectively pornographic and has but a fictional depth. My bottom line is that once you indulge in so much public exposure of skin and body as we do today, everything becomes effectively de-erotized. It has to be forbidden in order for it to be authentically erotic. So, welcome to the new Victorian era of de-erotized sex. Completely liberated from everything, and especially our precious tensions…

But! There is a hidden stray of light on the subject of Love after all. At least, our fatal fear of love, clearly proves that we actually believe in it.

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

The ‘Free Will’ of Obesity

This winter something rather interesting occurred on ‘the planet of slums’ that we call Earth. For the first time, obesity surpassed hunger in terms of the deaths it causes around the globe. This conclusion was drawn from a worldwide study published by The Lancet at the 13th of December, titled “The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010”. The obesity epidemic is now going global. Qatar, for example, has surpassed the United States in terms of statistics. It is alleged that 73 percent of Qatari men and 70 percent of Qatari women are ‘overweight’ (BMI between 25-30). If the trend continues, it is predicted, according to the newspaper Al Watan, that 73 percent of women and 69 percent of men would qualify as ‘obese’ (BMI over 35) within five years.

For my own part, these news rather surprised me since I did not figure the problem was that serious yet. As I started to investigate the matter it soon stood clear to me that it was no trifle. One thing that I noticed, though, was that the obesity epidemic highlights rather contradictory and insoluble problems for the notion of ‘free will’, and by extension for liberal capitalism itself. The reason is multifaceted, and the topic does not escape the scourge of ideology.

First of all, let us reflect for a second on the framing of ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ in popular media, especially television. From just watching a few of all those programs about weight loss competitions you kind of get the feeling that exercise seems to be the axiomatic solution to combat overweight. To exercise is expressed as a matter of ‘free will’: Either you exercise and ‘levers your meat’ in a typical Lutheran manner, or you have to live with the consequences of obesity. Seems simple, right?

In fact, these programs cannot be more about adressing ideology than they are. What these programs never tell you, is that there is in fact a 80-95 percent weight loss attempt failure in the long run. The timeframe for ‘long run’ is usually five years in these studies. Well, that sounds a little bit different than the rhetoric of ‘you can if you will’, spread through all these weight loss programs. I am even cynical enough to suspect that a great degree of the mental illness often affecting overweight persons in the West is due to these programs, but I have not yet seen any study on this matter.

Think for example about the weight loss program where overweight peple were sent to Anna Anka in the United States to achieve their dreams. The subjects in this program were initially weighed and had to stand next to a translucent tube in which Anna Anka poured the amount of fat they had on their bodies. Pedagogically, huh? In this way, they were able to see their inner ‘sickness’ of (in Lacanian words) the ‘real’. For the next coming weeks they were subsequently subject to the worst kind of ‘fascist’ praxis by Anna Anka that one could imagine; constantly being insulted and yelled at, while tears were incessantly imminent. Would this kind of mental abuse be allowed in any other context? The abuse of this program could hardly be legal in Sweden, and maybe that is why they recorded it in the U.S.

Further, why do these programs stress that ‘you can if you will’, even if science has concluded this to be a myth? This is worth thinking about, and here we enter the subject of discourse. Interestingly enough, ‘exercise’ is not really a measure which people would intuitively pursue once they notice that they are out of shape. A genealogy of ‘exercise’ by the sociologist Mike Featherstone (1991) finds that exercise, and especially ‘gym exercise’, is of course a German invention. It was developed during the late 19th century within the Prussian army and did not seem to be something that people outside of the military were concerned with. Featherstone notices that what initially required the whip of army morale slowly evolved into something that people started to conduct voluntarily. This process did not happen overnight, as people discovered its potential. It was rather the case that through relentless discursive praxis over a century of time (involving the educational system with ‘gymnastics’ and so on), people eventually started to think that ‘out-of-shape’ equals ‘lack-of-exercise’. Following this mantra is also the common prejudice that overweights are ‘immoral’.

Further interesting, Featherstone also noticed that Christian monks during the 16th century considered ‘diet’ associated with asceticism, which also guarded against bodily pleasures. Today, this formula is completely the opposite. Hedonism and asceticism is now two sides of the same coin; in order to enjoy bodily pleasures (according to ‘healthist’ discourse) you must discipline your body. Even more paradoxical, the combination of ‘healthism’ and a discourse of ‘culinary desires’ has now made us inmeshed in an ideology speaking; ‘enjoy food as much as possible, but burn every calorie’.

This menace can only be the work of discourse. Thus, what these weight loss programs are really doing is to exert what Nicholas Rose would call ‘liberal control’. They try to establish a mode of thought in which the individual bears all responsibility for problems that are actually of structural character. Most studies in fact point towards ‘genetic determinism’ as the culprit of obesity, therefore, the praxis of ‘healthism’ discourse is at best ‘ideology at its purest’, and at worst, complete nonsense.

Also, this modus operandi may have spurred more resistance than subjugation. People are not stupid – at least not in a subconscious sense. The production of ‘healthism’ discourse is clearly perceived as an instrument of power. As Michel Foucault once said: “where there is power, there is resistance”. Also, let us not forget the Freudian – and partly Nietzschean – insight which states that we essentially desire ‘the forbidden’.

The most absurd forms of resistance in this manner are found in the United States. One especially stubborn rebel in this regard is the junk food restaurant “Heart Attack Grill”, which literally brags about the unhealthiness of their dishes. All of the personnel are dressed up as nurses and customers are weighed before ordering. The higher the weight, the less you pay for your food. And if you accomplish to eat the (already) legendary “quadruple bypass burger”, the personell will escort you back to your car in a weelchair. In a report by Al Jazeera, the owner of the restaurant stated that “the Founding Fathers fought and sacrificed for my right to be as stupid as I wanted, and I’m gonna continue”. I wonder what ‘liberal control’ can do about this guy?

An even more hopeless case for ‘healthism’ is that even if this discourse gives us the impression that ‘oh, everyone is exercising, being disciplined, except me’, the fact remains that fewer and fewer people are actually exercising, owing to the decline of organised sport within the working class. For instance, football – which people actually enjoy – has been ensured and achieved by the flexible market of diverse schedules of labour.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I am not trying to lament that obesity is in fact a health problem. So, borne in mind that the main reason is ‘genetic determinism’, how do we solve the issue without the production of a mental-illness-causing-discourse-of-healthism?

I think the most potential lies within regulation of food industry and bio-technology; which is where the painful spot lies for liberal capitalism. It is always expressed as simply impossible to try to subsidize healthy food for ‘junk food’, raising taxes on sugar or soft drinks, which is usually a desire that the ‘free rational individual’cannot refrain from. This is also a scam, since ‘junk food’ is often subsidized, and is often the only affordable choice for a large segment of the population, sometimes referred to as the ‘working class’.

In Britain, they recently made once another advance in the history of ‘free will’. They now demand from overweight people in London to submit information about their weight when they apply for social subsidy. If they, after attempts of coercion, refuse to exercise, they consequently receive less subsidy. If this carrot-and-stick logic is the future of ‘free choice’, then I think we are approaching a substantially abusive type of ‘biopolitics’. Once again, the discussion at the other end of this spectrum is of course ‘out of the question’, since regulating food industry is considered a threat to ‘free will’.

So how about this bio-technology thing? I think it might hold some potential. If developed, it is not impossible that our predisposition to collect excess energy (bluntly speaking, ‘packing on the pounds’) can be erased by manipulation of human DNA. That would be a true ‘equality of opportuniy’ in terms of genetic determinism. Yet, this of course hinges on the avaliability of these measures. As such, universal healthcare seems to once again be at the hot spot. But if we go scientific about it, a bodily ‘equality of outcome’ seems more reasonable than a bodily ‘equality of opportunity’, or rather a myth of such.

Finally, let us not forget that a lot of the activities that humans conduct, such as working under poor conditions, extreme sporting, partying, driving cars, and going to war, to name a few, also have a substantial effect on lifelength; yet these are not targeted by abusive discourse. We may want to keep that in mind.

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

Christmas & Ideology

As the hegemonic message of our contemporary season of the year demands, now is the time when we are supposed to reflect upon the meaning of relations, love, and what is important in life. I have an account to share in this regard, and by doing it, I do not intend to echo the standard anti-consumerist rhetoric of the discourse of Christmas, but rather to spin the table around yet another turn. I will argue that this anti-materialist notion of love where we all just come together in front of the fireplace and enjoy each others’ company is basically carrying the exact opposite message to what is generally presumed.

How do I mean this? Well, think for example about the rather recent – in terms of the history of Christmas tales – narrative of the Grinch. The story originates from 1957, when a children’s book titled “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was published by Theodor Seuss Geisel or, as he is more generally known, ‘Dr. Seuss’. This story then reappeared in cinematical form in Ron Howard’s film from 2000 with the same title. I am certain that everyone has seen it on one or two occasions.

Now, what is the message of this movie at the apparent narrative level? The structure of the story revolves around a little lovely girl with a big heart, and an outcast monster called the Grinch. Since he was born with the skin colour of green, and subsequently was victim to harassment as a child, he adopted the lifestyle of ‘the public enemy number one’. Moved out of the city and established his lonely habitat at the top of a cliff, to which he year after year returned, motivated by hatred from his childhood experience to destroy Christmas. The lovely little girl, not having been fully socialized into the prejudices of the adult villagers, wishes to re-integrate the Grinch into society and make him realize that he has a ‘big heart’ underneath his misanthropic turf.

This seems to be the message of Love, in the Christmasian sense of the word. But I actually think that the message, at the deeper ideological structure of narrative, is the radical opposite. For what is it that the Grinch really tries to destroy? He does not simply want to hurt people by inflicting terror or violence upon them. As is evident, all he ever does is to try to destroy the ‘holy cow’ of this, at the surface of appearance, honest and harmonious village, which just tries to stay alone from the violent intervention by this monstrous adversary embodied within the Grinch. Put simply, he wishes to destroy the village’s private property. And here enters the interesting features of ideology, as understood by the psychoanalytical philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Žižek argues quite convincingly that ideology at the conscious level of the self always functions as the inverted outside of the ideological structure at work at the unconscious level. This is an idea already present in Karl Marx’s classic Das Kapital: ”They do not know it, but they are doing it.”

For example, as argued by Žižek, this ideological structure can be convincingly identified in the “The Sound of Music”. At the simplest narrative level, The Sound of Music depicts the struggle of honest Austrians trying to resist a Nazi takeover. At a deeper level, however, it is evident that these Austrians do not really subscribe to the character of this purity. They are rather, in Žižek’s terms, “provincial”, “small-is-beautiful”, “fascists”, while the Nazi’s take upon the appearance of the anti-Semitic formula of the “cosmopolitan”, “decadent”, “Jew”. Most of them are not even soldiers; they are corpulent, hedonistic bureaucrats constantly preoccupied with smoking and all kinds of decadence. Therefore, the ideological image of the adversary, with this structure borne in mind; is rather like a mirror. Subsequently, I argue that the ideological structure of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is exactly the same as that of The Sound of Music.

Viewed through these spectacles, is it not obvious that the underlying ideological formula of the Grinch is the worst kind of intolerance, or even of racism. In psychoanalytic terms, what the little girl tries to accomplish is not for the Grinch to realize that he has a ‘big heart’, but rather for him to enter back into the symbolic order at work in the harmonious village. Stated plainly, she wishes him to respect the notion of private property.

The Grinch on the other hand, has a rather revolutionary project. He refuses to embrace the idea that the villagers are actually racist, and hate him because he is green. He is far more clairvoyant than this, as he adopts a materialist paradigm, and instead, subsequently tries to restructure the order of the symbolic by making visible the imaginary structure of their notion of love. In other words, by destroying their property, he simply wishes for the villagers to wake up from their fascist obsession with perfect aesthetic harmony, and make them realize that the object of their desire: [things], is not the equivalent to the reason why they desire them: to find [love]. The Grinch tries to establish a society where the value of people is not asserted by the value of their things. However, as is central to the structure of ideology, even he does not really know what he is doing, yet.

Now what happens in the end of the film? A catastrophe, I would say. The Grinch, having stolen all of the villagers’ Christmas presents, packed them on top of a sled, aims to accomplish his project; to throw all of them out from the top of a cliff and demonstrate his hatred. Just as he is in the process, his misanthropic heart starts to beat and he falls to the ground, starting to realize that his hateful project is not hateful at all. Realizing that presents are just presents, the Grinch becomes aware of his unconscious revolutionary project. He does not hate the villagers, he hates the system.

Exactly at this moment, the lovely little girl enters as a divine intervention. The Grinch discovers in horror that she is actually sitting on top of the sled, as it moves closer to the edge. As such, he does not really change his mind about the project that he just realized he was performing. An emergency-logic sets in and he simply has to put aside his ideological battle to save the girl.

And that’s it. By saving the girl, he also saves the presents. An alternative Hegelian synthesis is established in which the anti-thesis of Christmas, the Grinch, accepts his subordinate position in the village in exchange for them tolerating him for being green. The utopia of Christmas is re-established!

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

Did Somebody Say Utopia?

When times look dim in our contemporary world due to environmental crisis, food crisis, and financial crisis – compelling is the thought or rather fantasy, then, of utopia. The concept first appeared as the title of Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia from 1516, which described a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean in which everything was imbued by delightful perfection. This concept then turned into some kind of binary signifier, after having its counterpart coined in the guise of dystopia – a most prominent theme of George Orwell’s famous masterpiece 1984, as well as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which is oddly enough not as famous as Orwell’s. It may be the case that it is just too much of a resemblence of our contemporary society to be appreciated as dystopian.

My intention is not to dwell too long on the mundane perception of these abstract concepts. I would rather like to propose the crazy idea that utopia and dystopia effectively works the completely opposite way of how we spontaneously use them in the process of thinking.

In some sense, when fantasmatically portraying some possible future as utopian, I think we rather simply castrate it, making it impotent as a principle of organizing society. The opposite goes for dystopian, where we rather castrate our own sense of political agency before some traumatic complexity of future events. I will now use theories derived from psychoanalysis to elaborate in simplified sense why this is the case.

First of all, it is an essential claim within psychoanalysis that the phenomenon of fantasy exists only at the imaginary level of reality. If you realize a fantasy, you also effectively annihilate it in the form of fantasy. These thoughts have extensive roots within human thinking. You find a version of it even in the Tanakh. More precisely in the male heterosexist discourse on “women” in the two different guises of Lilith and Eve, imaginary and real. However, this myth is most explicitly common within Jewish tradition and is more or less censored in Christian scriptures. Nevertheless, Lilith was actually the first wife of Adam, and in contrast to Eve was not created from part of him but from the same earth, on equal basis, so to say. However, she was apparently “too hot” for Adam to handle, and since she also refused to become subservient, she was eventually replaced by the submissive Eve. Lilith took the form of the imaginary female occupying the masturbatorical fantasies of Adam, while Eve was turned into the real and “flawed” female.

Every fantasy is in this sense an excess of the real. Once realized and the excess lost, the fantasy is lost, too. This is why all the junk magazines occupying most of the literary space in our grocery stores never reach closure on the close-to-God-like topic of happiness. Miles of column-inches of text elaborate on how to really become happy, and still, no whatsoever attention has been directed to recent science on the field of happiness. Happiness seems to be the holy cow of our society and occupy the top of our cultural utilitarian pedestal. But I am afraid that the time has come for me to slay it.

All you have ever read on the topic of happiness Hollywood-style is unfortunately a total deception. There does not exist a condition of happiness for us to reach. It is true that we can achieve well-being, as a durable condition. But when it comes to happiness, it is in fact only an episodic experience evoked when we satisfy pent-up needs. Poets and authors can elaborate on happiness as much as they want, in the quest to solve the mystery of achieving it. But according to what I have heard from recent developments within neuropsychology, our brain does not even allow for happiness to be anything else than short-lived and episodical. And as such, you cannot achieve happiness in the popular junk-magazine Hollywood-style sense of the term.

Regrettably, all popular bullshit about fulfilling or realizing your fantasies and dreams is in the end turned into its radical opposite. Once you fulfill them, they move out of the realm of imaginary desire and becomes part of your boring reality. No wonder that rockstars turn into drug junkies.

And to my point, this of course also hold for the realization of utopia. Once you enact utopia into your reality of daily political life, you lose it at the same time. Think, for example, of the spiral of terror following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Once the eschatology of early 20th century Marxism was realized in a potent form (similar to how Adam’s intercourse with Lilith inevitably resulted in “domestic violence”), it ate itself from within until it turned the connotation of the entire idea of Communism into a durable state of impotence.

Unsurprisingly, also liberals failed to appreciate when their utopia was turned into world religion during the 1990s hysterical ejaculation in celebration of the end of history. Even though now the entire world has endured through its steel baths, Liberalism still expresses the loudest complaints. This is a rather interesting phenomenon, indeed.

But there is one more side to this, which is the fact that exclaiming something as a utopia is also an effective way of disqualifying it as a reasonable project. On the unconscious level, we all know the thing I just mentioned about fantasy. As such, I would like to propose the idea that we do not really conceive of utopia as something we would actually like to implement onto our reality. The opposite goes for the case of dystopia, where we consciously think (at the level of known knowns) that we will end up in catastrophe. And there is nothing we can really do about it. At the unconscious level of unknown knowns however, we always know how to prevent it, but in order to protect our psyches from the everyday boredom of “Eve”, we act as if we do not know which way we are heading. We always carry this obscure desire for the “evil guys” to win.

In this sense, the imaginary dystopia is there to hide the real dystopia. We rather tend to fantasize about worse problems than those very contemporary material problems that we perceive too immediate and traumatic to deal with. And hardships seems so much easier to carry when we carry them collectively. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, the best thing to tell a dying person is that everyone else is dying at the same time.

Therefore, utopia and dystopia as instruments of thoughts work exactly the opposite way of how we spontaneously use them. To call an idea utopian makes it totally useless, unattainable, something with which we justify our contemporary state of affairs. For example, would it not be a utopia to imagine a society where nobody slept under the bridges at night?

I think not. Think about it for a while; does it not, as the philosopher Rick Roderick (the giant of Texas) once said, sound rather pathological with our contemporary technological standard borne in mind:

No, it’s not utopian to demand that [human requirements are met] in a world with this kind of technology, that is a moral demand; a society feeds, houses, and clothes its people. A society that doesn’t do it, with the kind of technology and the wealth we have, is beneath contempt and makes a mockery of all the previous histories of civilisation.

And, as he later concludes which I would finally like to emphasize: “[…]neither has or deserves a very long existence.”

Thereof, a truly revolutionary demand would not be grandious and utopian. A truly revolutionary demand would be to demand a “simple”, “normal”, “functioning” society, where kindergardens, schools, and hospitals are not perceived as out of our reach to manage without trouble, and where people don’t sleep under the bridges at night. We can fly to Mars, but this simple thing, we cannot solve.

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

“There was a Co(mpany)untry named Nigeria”

Nigeria, at independence from British rule in 1960, was called the Giant of Africa. With a large population, an educated elite and many natural resources, especially oil, Nigeria was supposed to fly the flag of democratic success. It did not, and it is clear now, in retrospect, that it could not possibly have done so.

These were the initial comments made by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (London Review of Books, Things Left Unsaid, 11 October 2012) on the “unsaids” in the recently published memoir of the famous author Chinua Achebe, entitled “There was a Country”. This is an allegation which Adichie somewhat objects to, instead arguing that there was no Nigerian nation at the moment of its founding. Rather it was an “economic policy” for the British colonial rule to subsidize the poor North with resources from the wealthier South. This strategy failed according to Adichie:

A nation is, after all, merely an idea. Colonial policy did not succeed in propagating the idea of a nation: indeed, colonial policy did not try to. In the North colonialism entrenched the old elite; in the South it created a new elite, the Western-educated.

Adichie also notes that Achebe was lucky to be grown up among these old educated elites. And this may also have led him to his strong belief in the idea of Nigeria, and as such caused him to feel great disappointment about Nigeria’s course following the independence from British colonial rule. The main reason for Nigeria’s continued “backwardness” according to Achebe is owing to the Igbo tribes lack of integration with the rest of Nigeria, all the way from the scars of the Biafra War and onwards.

Although most of these so called “unsaids” is thoroughly drawn into attention by Adichie, my intention is nonetheless to point out some other “unsaids” which may still dwell in the predicaments of Nigerias so called “backwardness”, not mentioned by Adichie in this specific case.

To begin with, it is crucial to know that Achebe’s writings, in particular his book Things Fall Apart, is famously known as the act of “writing back” to the West in the process of decolonialization. By writing his own history, Achebe decisively challenged the reductionist writings on the peoples of Nigeria and its history conducted by the imperialist West. But even though independence was an absolute improvement, and the process of “writing back” an ineluctable empowerment; I would like to propose the idea that it may not simply be the case that Nigeria is effectively decolonialized after all.

Besides the tragedy of the Nigerian-Biafran War and the unsuccessful British “economic policy” of attempts to redistribute wealth from the South to the North of Nigeria, there may also be the case (in a global context) of Nigeria being part of a larger “economic policy” of redistributing from the poor southern parts of the world to the rich northern parts. In the Nigerian case, I think this work is most efficiently conducted by the oil company Shell.

It is fait accompli that Shell, or the more properly so called “Shell Petroleum Development [sic!] Company” and its Nigerian joint-venture partners have earned billions of dollars from oil extracting in the Niger Delta from 1937 and onward. This area is populated by the Ogoni people which have been protesting the great costs imposed on them from the oil extraction for decades. According to a study by Richard Boele (Shell, Nigeria and the Ogoni, 2001), rather than development, they have experienced a detoriating environment, conflicts and different kinds of evictions and physical displacements from their livelihoods. The consequences of the oil extraction have been absolutely devastating. Leaving large parts of Niger Delta mangrove completely destroyed and waters so contaminated that no fish can live there. Shell has even left worn out industrial constructions and pipelines in the open terrain without lifting a finger for its dismantling.

Even though the campaigns of protests have been mostly non-violent, Boele emphasizes that it nonetheless resulted in thousands of Ogoni being “killed, raped, beaten, detained and exiled and the main leaders executed.” That was for example the barren destiny of the famous and awarded activist Ken Saro-Wiwa which was executed in 1995. Shell had prior to his execution pulled out from Ogoniland owing to the social pressure put forward by the organization Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which he represented.

Ken Saro-Wiw undertook the challenge as early as 1968 just when the effective seizure of Ogoniland by the Nigerian government was about to commence. He wrote:

We refuse to accept that the only responsibility which Shell-BP owes our nation is the spoliation of our lands [. . . ] We shall appeal to the Federal military government, or whatever government succeeds it to continue to show concern for small nationalities such as ours – especially in constitution making, that it TAKE STRONG COGNIZANCE OF OUR DESIRES WITH REGARD TO THE COMPANIES PROSPECTING OR OPERATING ON OUR SOIL (original emphasis, reproduced in Saro-Wiwa, 1995a).

Today, Shell’s operations in Nigeria amounts to 14 percent of its global production, and 7 percent of its profits. That means Shell also produces half of Nigeria’s total daily production of two million barrels of crude oil. It should be stressed according to Boele that the Nigerian oil industry is nationalized since the 1970s, and that Shell have operated through joint-ventures with the Nigerian government. However, I would argue that this so called nationalization is rather insignificant when the entire state itself is actually under the control of Shell. This fact was confirmed earlier this spring when leaked diplomatic cables between the U.S. government and Shell revealed that Shell had inserted staff into all of the main ministries of the Nigerian government – giving it total control of every move made by Nigerian politicians.

Shell claim its “by most effective contribution to Nigeria is through the taxes and royalties we pay [to the federal government]” (Shell International, 1995a). At the height of the conflict of the 1990s it even paid as much as 55 percent of revenues to the Federal government. This may sound like charity, but borne in mind with the fact that the Federal government guaranteed its business by military means and conducted seizure of lands, construction of necessary industrial infrastructure and so on; it should rather be looked upon as a means of outsourcing operations which would otherwise be on the costs of Shell either way. After all, funding for the amelioration of environmental problems that struck the Ogoni amounted to only but one single percent of the revenues. And instead of cleaning up the mess in the Niger Delta, Shell spent 16 million USD on an advertising campaign to clean up its image. The damage done to the Ogoniland was (and is) left untouched.

Shell now argues that it have improved its corporate social responsibility and now engages in community development partnerships, at the same time they move large parts of their operations offshore. However, according to the conclusions of a study conducted by Uwafiokun Idemudia (Oil Extraction and Poverty Reduction in the Niger Delta: A Critical Examination of Partnership Initiatives, 2008) there is:

no amount of road or bridge construction, provision of electricity or awarding of scholarships that can compensate for the loss of livelihood resulting from 5400 incidences of oil spills that have been officially recorded since 2000.

A similar conclusion is drawn by Ite Uwem. Although Shell has adopted CSR-policies, it has strangely enough protracted effective implementation. It might be argued that this is just a temporary malfunctioning, but once again there also seems to be a larger ominous context. Idemudia argues that even if local capacity for monitoring and enforcing of effective environmental regulation is strengthened, it makes no difference when the overall trend is that of governments of developing countries accelerating their slashing of environmental standards in order to attract investments. Evidently, that is how far the contribution of corporate social responsibility reaches in this case; it is like cleaning the floors of a sinking ship.

It should also be stressed that the Nigerian state is crippled by serious corruption. Boele refer to this corruption as one of the “challenges” facing Shell in its exploitation of Nigeria. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate too much on the root cause of this corruption.

Honest civil servants seem to be harder to find nowadays. For example, although Ken Saro-Wiwa died for Nigeria, his son Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior actually stated earlier this year that, unlike his father, he wanted to live for Nigeria. He emphasizes that many of his father’s minority rights demands are now met. However, a context also worth mentioning is his employment within the Nigerian government. This may partly explain the point he made on Nigerian television when he said that his past as an activist had to end when he “grew up” and realized that the “seat at the table” he raged over when he was young eventually stood vacant for him.

“There comes a point when, yes, okey, you have a voice. We have heard your voice. But what do you bring to the table?”

To the contrary, one who has not yet “grown up” in the sense of Saro-Wiwa Junior is the civil society leader and environmental activist Celestine AkpoBari. He spends his days continuing the work of Mr. Juniors legendary father. Protesting forced evictions of people living in oil-rich areas and also leads a campaign for the adoption of the Ogoni Bill of Rights. A document presented before the Nigerian government back in 1990 calling for:

political autonomy to participate in the affairs of the Republic as a distinct and separate unit (by whatever name called), provided that this autonomy guarantees political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people; the right to control and use a fair proportion of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development; adequate representations, as of right, in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation. (MOSOP.org)

Returning to one of the initial topics, Celestine recently concurred with Achebe on the question of “there was a country.” On his twitter @GreatOgoni he wrote “I am agreeing with Prof Achebe that “there was a country” called Nigeria but not any more! Failed Rulers are now owners of electricity firms.”

It is a fair guess that this tweet is referring to the corruption and lack of corporate social responsibility among the multinationals in Nigeria. So, if Shell really takes its corporate social responsibility seriously; how about acknowledging the quite basic statutes of the Ogoni Bill of Rights instead of running so astonishingly charitable community development partnerships?

I think this is the so called obvious-stupid-question concerning the Nigerian predicament. For obvious reasons Shell would not prefer this to become reality. And this brings us back to the prefatory topic, that of colonialism.

Instead of hoping for the will of adaptation from the part of Shell while enraging ourselves with the concept of classical colonialism I think we would have some great intellectual benefit to the cause of freedom of human beings if we rather left the essentialist view of the “West” as a fixed ethnic entity whose violence subjugated “Africa” or the “Third World” as an equally essentialist type of entity. And whose essence and “true identity” was an absolute and fixed being in history which was then distorted. It is true that the historically constructed entity we call the “West” colonialized the historically constructed entity called “Africa”. It is also true that the oppression of colonialism changed the course of history of this identity, but just as everything else, history is rather contingent. So we should not look upon these as inevitable fixed entities, but as contingent entities, that means: entities that can change.

Therefore, returning to Achebe’s complaints about “there was a country…” Yes maybe it was a country. But just as Adichie emphasized, Nigeria – just as every nation-state – may also be nothing but an “economic policy”. And I think it is very doubtful that the people of Nigeria, and Ogoniland in particular, would have chosen this particular policy.

Consequently, we might as well say that there will absolutely not be any change before the people decide for themselves. As long as they do not decide for themselves, they are still effectively colonialized. And last of all. As long as we as the citizens of the so called “democratic West” cannot do anything about it – we may suspect that we are too.

 

Text: Dennis Halvordsson
Photos: Nairaland Forum

Situating the Obama Doctrine: The Athenian Moment

The first presidential term of Barack Obama is closing in. The president who entered office with promises of change back in 2008. The question now is not just whether he will continue to hold office, but also what change he actually achieved, especially when it comes to the domain of foreign policy.

A good point of departure might be to compare Obama’s foreign policy to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. According to the scholar Michael Mastanduno, the Bush administration contributed to five major changes in U.S. foreign policy. First of all, the terrorist attacks of September 11 refocused the U.S. perception of threat and national security concerns. This pretty much filled up the spot left vacant after the collapse of the Soviet Union and reciprocally, re-established the geography of evil so necessary to the U.S. identity. After one year, most of the U.S. policymakers agreed that the central challenge was found among “global terrorism” and rogue states with capabilities to construct weapons of mass destruction.

Secondly, the U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush was expressed in rather moral and binary terms. The U.S. role was framed more explicitly within the narrative of good versus evil. Take for example Bush’s reference to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil”. This moral aspect also entails increased projection of U.S. values and institutions onto the rest of the world as a matter of security strategy.

Third, the U.S. totally dropped its cautious attitude inherited since the involvement in Bosnia and Somalia during the 1990s. Their pursuit for hegemony simply grew in risk acceptance and costs following the September 11 attacks, both in terms of their own casualties and in financial means. In the words of Mastanduno:

“They intervened and overthrew the Taliban despite ominous warnings that history was not kind to great powers who took on Afghanistan. The 2003 intervention in Iraq was more discretionary and considerably bolder. […] It could have spilled over into a more general Arab–Israeli war and led to political upheaval against friendly but fragile regimes in the region.”

Fourth, the U.S. turned a blind eye on the UN and similar institutional arrangements. Many have called this a shift from multilateralism to unilateralism. I find that exaggerated. The U.S. has more or less always only lent support to multilateral institutions when they have had assertive leadership over them. The only difference is that the Bush administration made things more explicit.

Fifth, the U.S. officials stated their nation’s supremacy confidently in public. The years of the Clinton administration always practiced some kind of restraint in this regard. While the Bush administration initially emphasized a humble and non-threatening approach towards the outside world, this radically changed after September 11, both in terms of rhetoric and policy.

Following the election of President Barack Obama, it is to the conventional view astonishing to note that none of these five areas really changed apart from the last one, that is, the rhetorical approach. In a severely ironic sense, Bush even initiated more change than Obama did when it comes to foreign policy. I leave it to the opinion of the obvious whether this was change in a good direction or not. The ambition of Barack Obama seemed really astute at first sight. It was by large even ajour with the transformation of transnational security issues (environmental changes, transnational crime, and so on), on which military forces seem quite futile.

For example, Obama announced an eventual shutdown of Guantanamo, a disavowal of torture, an undertaking of withdrawal from the war in Iraq, a lifting of travel restrictions with Cuba, an opposition towards Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and even sent invitations for dialogue with Iran and Syria. Altogether, the aggregate potential of the Obama Doctrine was what is usually called an exercise of “smart power”, a foreign policy leaning towards assertive multilateralism and traditional Open Door policies. None of these changes were initiated. Obama did withdraw from Iraq, but as the mission was accomplished, the favoured Iraqi coalition sworn into power, the oil contracts signed, the monopoly of violence restored; in that setting, who would not have withdrawn?

What I am saying is, let us not be totally naïve. Barack Obama is an American president after all, and it may come as no surprise that American presidents (as all others basically) seem to be deeply entangled in a rather complex structure of relations within the American ruling class. And they seem to have some rather exclusive interests (also grounded in structural logics, of course).

Many analysts of foreign policy that have studied the actual events during the first presidency of the Obama administration seem to be quite consistent on the fact that his politics is a continuation of the Bush Doctrine without its symbolic turf of moral rhetoric.

One difference is that of capturing less terrorist insurgents as prisoners. Instead, Obama has expanded the intensity of the unmanned drone war (the easy way to decrease inflow of POW:s into Guantanamo). It is not hard to realize that these drones are not ideal for the task of capturing prisoners. But it is also the case that Obama have improved the compliance of conventions in cases of close combat and captivity of insurgents in Afghanistan, but only slightly. According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann in a Foreign Affairs article titled Washington’s Phantom War, it is also fait accompli that this drone war is waged indiscriminately (in Yemen and Pakistan for example) in clear violation of principles of sovereignty which do also result in large numbers of civilian casualties.

The Obama administration usually refers to these kinds of operations conducted by unmanned drones as “surgical”. This use of language was recently somewhat nuanced by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic, considering that 15 percent of the victims were civilians:

“Using data that undercounts innocents killed, The New America Foundation reports that 85 percent of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes are “militants,” while 15 percent are civilians or unknown. What do you think would happen to a surgeon that accidentally killed 15 in 100 patients? Would colleagues would call him “surgical” in his precision?” 

It is also interesting to speculate on the Obama administration’s standing execution of the alleged and self-acclaimed terrorist leader Osama bin-Laden. One may frame this retaliatory act as nothing but a domestic gesture of propaganda. In that case, its reception of standing ovations amongst the subjects of opinion is demonstrative of not only an enduring state of ethical fiasco, but also of the hypocritical posture of contemporary Western ideology. It is hard to imagine a reaction more primitive than what was achieved by this kind of extralegal actions. And besides, why would the U.S. fetter, shackle, imprison, and torture so many alleged terrorists and then, while finally getting their hands over the terrorist leader, simply not even conduct a single informative interrogation?

It is not easy to make sense of this strategy on the part of the Obama administration. It rather seems as if the United States is caught up in some kind of Athenian moment. I derive this concept from the famous ancient Greek historian Thucydides and his works on the Peloponnesian war that was fought between Athens and Sparta and their respective alliances from 431 BC to 404 BC. Most of the time, the Athenians waged war with great success, and won numerous of battles during the years. Eventually though, some rather erratic event occurred. They became so overwhelmed by their own success that they also became totally incapable of making any strategic decisions. Every city-state in their way was consistently burned to the ground. Even when their enemies did surrender. The word of the Athenian ruthlessness eventually spread amongst their adversaries, and so they also became increasingly reluctant to any surrender. They fought as stubbornly as they possibly could, knowing that if they surrendered to the Athenians their lifes would not be spared anyway.

Looking upon this from an analytical perspective, it might be understood as a total lack of hegemony on the part of the Athenians. Their behaviour had left them with violence as the only instrument of dominance, which clearly is a rather expensive way of dominance. That was also the eventual conclusion drawn from the experience of the Athenians; power should be used wisely. One may wonder if the U.S. is heading towards a similar deadlock.

It is evident however that Barack Obama is reluctant to use military aggression against Iran. But that is no mystery indeed. Even most of the American realist hawks (such as Dimitri K. Simes, 2011, Foreign-Policy Failure, in The Realist) is actually more worried about the nuclear arsenal held by Pakistan, which is a far more unstable regime than the Islamic Republic of Iran. And Obama is also a realist indeed, at least according to the words of David P. Forsythe in his essay US Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Situating Obama. Just as his predecessors, economic advantage is always prioritized over pursuit of human rights:

Indeed, Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told a reporter that the President was basically a realist similar to the first president Bush.

Whether Obama in case of re-election turns out to meet his original ambitions is therefore doubtful. What is likely to also affect the U.S. foreign policy over the coming years is the U.S. – China axis. As their economies are tied up in absolute symbiosis, they are likely to have a rather substantial effect upon each other. Note for example the fact that the word “Tibet” has practically not been uttered by any American official during the last eight years. In sum, the structure of mechanisms determining U.S. foreign policy is a matter of complexity beyond any individual, that is, presidential, explanations. But at least there is a pattern of some predictability.

What initially echoed the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King’s famous one-liner “I have a dream” was unfortunately turned into something such as “I have a drone”. Barack Obama, notwithstanding all expectations, turned out to be as “politically white” as his predecessors.

 

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

”Mass Culture” or the invisible walls of ”Smart Totalitarianism”

It is often said that everything in our late modern society is nothing but spectacle and image. By large, such is at least the conventional wisdom of our self awareness since La Société du spectacle by Guy Debord. It is a literary masterpiece published in 1967 elaborating on the impact of the television. The significance of such concept as the society of spectacle is widely disputed. Self-acclaimed postmodernists like to behold it as the ultimate sign of the all-embracing relativity of existence. This is a social construction of reality which offers you the delightful promise of radical uncertainty. Paradoxically enough, this insight is often used to highlight that everything can be considered not to be real. As such, evading uncomfortable and complex discussions seems easier than ever. But are we really evading them? Or is it rather the case that with the help of mass simulation, we simply banalize them?

Just as the philosopher Ian Hacking once pointed out, the postmodern strategy of divide and conquer does not fool anyone, not least themselves, I think. For it is obvious that nothing is only spectacle and image. Keep in mind for instance the fact that spectacle and image can cause rather substantial material consequences. Think for example about public images depicting skinny and lightly dressed models, is it not quite clear that this phenomenon is not only spectacle and image when considering its role in influencing the presence of anorexia? I think the answer is simple even if the phenomenon is engaged through the lens of postmodern methods by itself. The signified keeps re-producing itself by the furtherance from the signifier. Pictures (signifier) of anorexic models (signified) effectively participate in manufacturing of new anorexic models (signified), and by the spectacular assistance of signifier alone. The relationship between signified and signifier becomes circular.

People in this postmodern utopia may enjoy the freedom to interpret these images just as they like. Still, on a systemic level, it seems to re-produce the same structural pattern over and over again. It may be the case that we just need more of the postmodern exercise in relativistic interpretation. What do I know, I can only offer you my interpretation…

Anyway, I think many would agree that the society of spectacle and image is what we in everyday speech refer to as ”mass culture”. The interesting question regarding this phenomenon is: How do we make sense of such a culture? And what is its nature?

The answer, just as everything, is obviosly disputed. So many are those who have elaborated on the subject of mass culture. Among the more perceptive – but nonetheless mass culturally uninteresting – accounts is the one put forward by the Texanian philosopher Rick Roderick in a series of lectures under the title The Self under Siege performed back in 1993.

For him, the mass culture of postmodernism based on spectacle and image had a peculiar non-systematic nature. All we could really know about it, is that it will appear on a grid. But just as with culture in general we can never be sure about the extent of the grid. In his own words: ”When you discuss cultural phenomenon today, you almost have to go phenomenon about phenomenon”.

Roderick’s greatest fear and foreboding was that even though the postmodern culture of mass simulation carried the task to extend the freedom in human lives, it nonetheless disrupted the very conditions underlying the meaning of being human at all. To paraphrase: ”it is pointless to talk about free humans, in the absence of humans.” Now, what do I he mean by this? Well, it is a complex argument, but I think it is best made intelligible by being analyzed from the standpoint of psychoanalysis.

Although psychoanalysis just as philosophy is not really a science in the strict sense of the word. It have for sure had it’s great contribution to philosophical inquiry in general and as such also affected the epistemology of science in a way that enables us to be far more sceptical about the meaning of knowledge than ever before. I am, of course, talking about the contribution of psychoanalysis in introducing us to the cognitive phenomenon of ”the subconscious”. This little word is often too serious a fatique for philosophers of older traditions, having only but the conscious part of our psyche as a point of departure for all previous philosophical inquires.

To the contrary, psychoanalytical thinkers such as both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan (to name a few) viewed our conscious mind to be a rather small part of our actual psychic lives. Freud, to be brief, made his fundamental distinction between the Id, ego and the super-ego. The ego, the organized and conscious part of our psyche, is according to Freud just a small garrison within our minds. It is, to be precise, only a small conscious ”garrison” within the ”city” of the unconsious.

The Id on the other hand, is something close to our natural instincts, our inner primeval being, and our desires. In popular culture it is often depicted as a little devil sitting on the left shoulder providing you with shameless proposals. What makes the ego resist this little devil is, as we all know, the little angel sitting on the other shoulder. This is the super-ego, the part of our mind that is intersubjectively entangled and embedded within society, the part responsible for morals and social norms of behaviour. That said, these three compose our psyche, in a greatly simplified sense.

Generally, the purpose of engaging in psychoanalysis is to make unreflected parts of the psyche become reflected. To make larger parts of the ”city” part of the ”garrison”. Even if that entails dealing with really ”sick” or unpleasent memories and thoughts. The goal is, in the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s words, to re-structure the order of the symbolic. That is to say, the goal is to bring about change by undermining the fictions structuring our reality, through the act of critical reflection in the realm of the unconscious. Postmodernists often interpret this imperative as coming to terms with the idea of there not being any reality. I will not protest – let them engage in psychoanalytic reflection in the postmodern way and discover what kind of institution it will lead them into. I on the other hand, prefer to interpret this as making visible the structures of hegemony and the manner in which it affects the materiality of society, which makes me realize that reality could be different. The more mundane form of this process is in simplification to make the Id become the I (ego). To make ”unknown knowns” become part of our ”known knowns”. This does not sound too bad, it’s, if you will, getting to know your inner ”true self”.

But bearing this in mind, what does it tell us about the function of mass tele-communicated and simulated culture? Isn’t its assignment rather to bring about the radical opposite?

Well, Roderick’s conclusion was exactly this: ”If the goal of psychoanalysis was to make the unreflected parts of our minds to become reflected (the Id become the I), then the goal of a mass simulation culture is psychoanalysis in reverse. It is to make that little last remaining part of that ”garrison” become unconscious.”

To make an example, by the time you have watched a few of those sitcoms of later production there is eventually not much of your life left that has not become it (the sitcom itself). Everything is reflected upon, is brought under the searchlight of ”enlightenment”, and so paradoxically becomes the general property of everyone, becomes generally understood. It takes upon reflecting socially uncomfortable memories, and as such, moves them out of the (conscious) clear ”garrison” and slam them around the (unconscious) ”city”. It’s goal is simply, to bury everything that might threaten the order itself.

Eventually, nobody dares to use their own reason, because reason is not even their’s to own anymore. That little garrison of autonomy inside our heads that we used to call ”self” is under constant assault from it.

After a while of indulging this mass culture (watching all these sitcoms and stuff), you will start to ”quasi-recognize” yourself in them. But then maybe you realize it have taken everything of meaning away from you and made it a general, although banalized, property of everyone.

But do not mourn, this culture is also a culture where all your needs and desires can be immediately satisfied over and over again. However, I cannot refrain from asking yet another question: Did those desires exist prior to it or is it rather through and by it that they are perpetually created?

We may come one step closer to this inquiry if we imagine that our desire would actually be that this mass simulation really unplugged itself. In simple words, for the television to blow itself up. This desire, this demand, it will never satisfy, it will never meet. Try going all relative about that.

Now that we have made some speculation about it’s nature. What then is it’s function, and how does it effect what Žižek would call the symbolic order?

This is actually the part where the phenomenon of the postmodernists is rendered interesting. Not because of any insight they might share, but rather from studying the phenomenon of their relativist attitude towards existence itself. How is it, if their insight is so enlightened, that they emerged out of history exactly at a time when society itself seemed to have lost hope for any real change? I think the answer lies precisely here. The relativist attitude is the effect of this mass culture, not it’s cause. For what happens when it, the culture of simulation, keeps superficialize reality by relentless circulation of infinitely replicable images. Why, as Roderick points out, visit Switzerland when the ”Switzerland land” at Disneyland is even better than the real Switzerland? Why even bother to make the distinction? If not for any possibility of finding a meaningful difference between superficial versus genuine at all. Further, you will never find any topic of discussion not having been banalized already by being endlessly treshed by the cynical mincer of talk show hosts like Ricki Lake, Geraldo Rivera, or in the Swedish case: Filip and Fredrik. And it’s not as simple as turning the television off. In that case, you may eventually find yourself in a confused situation of not even being able to find something that resembles the resemblance of ”reality”. In a state of hyper-reality (reality being only that which could be simulated), this act of un-plugging will simply turn you into an outcast. Just as the general academic community already is at the time.

At this point, it may become clear what the consequnces of this phenomenon of mass culture might be. Roderick’s idea is that you could build walls that are apparent and crude, and by such easy to storm and tear down. This is what Roderick called ”stupid totalitarianism”.

But there are also walls that cannot be seen. These walls exist everywhere, they are the walls of ”race”, ”class”, ”sex”, and so on. However insidious, the walls are rendered even stronger by the perpetual process of banalization through sitcoms, talk shows, and all other simulations of mass culture (what people generally refer to as , pardon the language, ”shit” but still enjoy). In the end, the frightening part ist that you will perpetually have the feeling that you have already stormed the walls.

The ”known knowns” of your little brain will be turned into the ”unknown knowns” of everyone. This is the only way our psyche can handle such an overload of ambiguous and banal information, by moving it out of the garrison. As such, the goal of mass simulation is almost to reverse the process of the enlightenment. In metaphorical words, the little clear ”garrison” of your mind keeps shrinking for the benefit of the extending unconscious ”city”. Mass simulation performs exactly the opposite process to what Freud and Lacan had in mind.

All this makes the attitude of ”everything is just bullshit” far more reasonable to assume than to even try to make sense of a system of such complexity. As expressed by Roderick: ”These walls do not really wall anyone out, they just wall you in.”. And this is what Roderick calls ”smart totalitarianism”. An order of the symbolic powerful enough even to manage to satisfy your desire for revolution once in a while. Or as Žižek usually put it: ”it doesn’t give you what you desire – it tells you how to desire.”

Text: Dennis Halvordsson