One of the most familiar of Zizek's concepts is interpassivity, the way that an object does something for us, enabling us to remain passive. So, Zizek's vcr can tape a bunch of movies, watching them in Zizek's stead. Recent discussions with students have reminded me how useful this concept is. It's particularly useful for thinking about contemporary outrage.
For the past several months, 24/7 news media has repeated that the American people are outraged (imagine typical Jon Stewart mash up of relevant samples). We are outraged about the economy, the bailout, Wall Street salaries, Obama's missing birth certificate, Miss America, swine flu, taxes, and torture. But the weird thing is that there are not massive rallies in the streets. People are not storming the White House or Wall Street, for that matter. Why?
My hypothesis: blame Glen Beck and Keith Oberman. Blame Counterpunch and whatever right wing net-based publication you want. These folks are outraged for us. They are outraged in our stead, enabling us to retain our general passivity. Extreme media, in other words, doesn't stir us up: it stirs for us.
I believe there may be a clue in an unusual comment Obama made back in March, during a town hall meeting in California. He was discussing why the Federal government had to step in to save the larger banks, and said something that sounds like black mail:
"When you've got big big banks -- Citicorp or Bank of America or Wells Fargo -- that control 70% of the banking system and all of them are weakening, you can't afford to have all those banks going under, even though the deposits might be guaranteed. We had to step in, it was the right thing to do, even though it's infuriating. ..."
"Same thing with AIG," Obama said. "It was the right thing to do to step in. Like they've got a bomb strapped to them and they've got their hand on the trigger, you don't want them to blow up, but you've got to ease them off the trigger."
I actually watched this surreal moment on the news. As he was using the suicide bomber image, the president held out his arm and simulated a hand on a trigger.
What could the President mean by such an image? It was used in the context of a response to a question from the audience - so perhaps it doesn't mean all the much.
Or, President Obama, in an unusual moment of candor, just told the American people that their financial system is being held hostage by a small group of suicidal/homocidal maniacs.
Former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top Bush administration officials had detailed knowledge of the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture tactics and approved them, according to a front-page article published Wednesday by the New York Times.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee released the results of its investigation into the treatment of alleged terrorists in military prisons. Among its major findings, the 231-page report confirms that CIA torture began months before the drafting of the recently released Bush Justice Department legal memos that sanctioned it.
This confirmed that the memos were nothing more than pseudo-legal rationalizations for illegal policies that were already being carried out. They were concocted in order to provide an ex post facto legal cover for CIA torturers and the government officials, from Bush on down, who gave the orders for their actions.
The same report provides evidence that the White House ordered the torturing of alleged terrorists in an attempt to extract statements linking Al Qaeda with then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. This fact establishes a direct connection between the violation of domestic and international laws barring torture, the preparation of an unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, and a conspiracy by the president and his top officials to deceive the American people and drag them into war on the basis of lies. It underscores that the adoption of torture as a tool of foreign policy is part and parcel of a turn to dictatorial forms of rule and the assault on the democratic rights of the American people.
These latest revelations further demonstrate that the Bush White House was the headquarters of a militarist clique that operated with contempt for the Constitution and the law.
These are the very officials whom the Obama administration is seeking to shield from criminal investigation and prosecution.
The Times article and the Senate report signal a sharpening of the conflict within the state and the Obama administration itself over the torture policies carried out by both the CIA and the military under Bush. That conflict erupted into the open following Obama’s decision last Thursday to release four previously classified memos from the Bush Justice Department detailing various abusive interrogation tactics and vouching for their legality.
The new disclosures have made President Obama’s position untenable. He has repeatedly signaled that no high-ranking Bush administration officials and none of the CIA perpetrators are to be investigated. On Tuesday, he left open the possibility of a criminal investigation of the Bush Justice Department lawyers who drafted the torture memos and suggested that he might support a “bipartisan” and “non-political” commission of inquiry into the treatment of detainees, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission that oversaw an official cover-up of the events surrounding the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The Senate report confirms that torture, including waterboarding, was already underway well before the first Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) “torture memo” was signed by then Assistant Attorney General for the OLC, Jay Bybee.
This undermines Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s argument that the CIA agents should not be investigated because they were following guidelines set down by the Justice Department.
The Obama administration has not even attempted to invent a legal pretext for not investigating the authors of the torture program, something it is obliged to do under international law. It has merely mouthed banalities about the need to “move forward” and “turn the page.”
Will Susan Boyle's epic moment last week on Britain's Got Talent (not a BBC show) turn out to be a choreographed piece of TV manipulation? Probably. But that'll just mean that something false gave rise to something true.
Captain Richard Phillips of the good ship Maersk Alabama—and Sully Sullenberger splashing down his crippled airliner in the Hudson River—broke through the poisonous smog of economic depression and Wall Street skullduggery with a reminder that pure individual heroism is a daily occurrence if we know where to look for it. Susan Boyle is another avatar of global yearning.
The YouTube clip of Susan's angel voice soaring from the unkissed mouth of that scrunchy-faced, eyebrow-enforested, unprepossessingly dumpy representative of anonymous humanity was the third irresistible message to us all to get over ourselves. Until things get better, we will all go on being unusually receptive to such epiphanies from the news. They remind us what uncomplicated strength of character looks like.
I don't agree with this entirely. But I like it and want to remember it. It captures, I think, one of Zizek's emphases on ideology and cynicism, namely, his clear rejection of cynicism and his oft-repeated point that the Real appears in gaps in the Symbolic. Miracles do happen.
But perhaps we should also ask ourselves about the globality of the yearning and the avatar of its appearance. What about the pirates? Are they not, too, avatars of global yearning? Do they appear as such to some but not to others? And in what ways does the very supposition that an avatar can have this globality already imply the very impossible of 'the' global exposing thereby the specificity of worlds?
And what about our receptivity to epiphanies from the news? It makes sense to emphasize the conditions of receptivity of such epiphanies and many are now accustomed to looking at these conditions in media environments. Brown's turn toward affective habitats of longing and disappointment (she emphasizes women's) suggest that they produce particular conditions of receptivity. It makes me think of the people waiting for a miracle, a messiah, a prophet, and finding them already among them. And it makes me worry about the potential dark side of such finding, the way that some kinds of receptivity may take the place of others.
My first news of right wing whining about the Obama administration's release of the torture documents was last night's Daily Show's clips from Sunday morning shows. At first, I wasn't surprised. Since they can't make an ethical argument for the prosecution of those who authorized torture, they attack from a different position, one that actually repeats/relies on their Straussian underpinnings: the leaders must keep secrets from the people. This horrible burden of secrecy, of being will to do the dirty work when necessary while nonethless publicly espousing the law is the true burden of political responsibility. That the nightly law is obscene does not make it unnecessary.
As I thought about it, I recalled comments by students several years ago: the government doesn't have the right to tell us what it knows. These comments manifest the same logic of right wing rule. The compact between leaders and followers is you, leaders, keep us safe, and most of all keep us safe from the knowledge of what you have to do to keep us safe. In return, we will respect you and your awful burden, we will observe your commandments, most of all, your commandment that we enjoy (our bovine ignorance, our hatred of the enjoyment of others, our obsessive preoccupation with the very ethics that our obscene social compact stains).
But what about Obama? Has he chosen the worst, the option of knowledge without accountability: torture is now undeniable (for many of us, it's been undeniable since the Abu Ghraib photos; for some of us it's been undeniable as a basic fact of US militarism). He has put the country (and even the world in so far as others could arrest US officials traveling abroad) in the position of knowing that it's officials have tortured people, that it legalized some forms of torture, and that that's. It's in the past, we won't do it, in the future (or will we). So we have the knowledge of evil/jouissance/obscenity but no responsibility for it, no attempt to bring to justice.
Is this ethically responsible: we face up to evil in the world, our own evil, and accept moral ambiguity? So, such a move is a component of putting away childish things (like a hope for justice)?
Is it a move that says justice does not exist? There is no big Other capable of turning back the clock, of carrying out a necessary bringing to justice. So all we can do is persevere, carry on, look ahead? Resolution is old school--in the face of the decline of symbolic efficiency it won't work anyway (trials are a circus, overly politicized, truth commissions in the US have resolved nothing but produced sites for the flourishing of conspiracy theories).
Is it possible that the subjects who could prosecute the crimes have not yet been called into being and that this is the responsibility of the left? Sometimes it's necessary to dissolve the people and create a new one.
After Obama was elected I started wondering whether we had returned to an era of symbolic efficiency (although the travails of the finance sector, their utter failure to produce a standard of valuation, their inability to comprehend their own books and assets--or, their failure to acknowledge that this very failure of valuation is precisely the collapse of value, proof, in other words, that their CDOs and similar 'toxic assets' (sounds like another word for liability) are actually worthless). It seemed that political meaning had been restored to a degree. That there was some kind of stability (I won't call it a new Master, despite proclamation or hopes to the contrary; I will think of it/him as a knot of attachment/investment that can momentarily knit together some terms and feelings into a strand of meaning) seemed clear.
Silly me. Tricks are for kids!
The right-wing crazies are loud and vicious and determined to say that night is day and day is night, to assert the implausible and the false in their effort to maintain an unraveled symbolic, a psychotic world. Here's an email I got a few days ago on "Obama's Fraudulent Filings". The sender was identified as Christian Response: email@example.com. (Test: how many leftists will latch onto this just as they did to 9/11 truth?)
Basic themes: Obama is not who he says he is; he's an imposter, a usurper, not 'one of us,' not a real American but an African. He isn't a 'natural born citizen' but someone unnaturally born, someone who cannot serve because of his unnatural birth. Obama can't be president because he has no right to be a candidate; he has no right to be a candidate because he is not one of us, he is African. He is a 'pretender to the throne,' as if the presidency were a hereditary monarchy (and thus he is a usurper by birth and by blood). Evidence to the contrary (his Hawaiian birth certificate) is false, a forgery, a lie that Obama is preserving by force as he 'comes after the United States Justice Foundation' with 'a vengenance.'
And, in case the racist support of this particular account of usurpation were not quite enough, in case it fails to mobilize a deep loathing of others on the basis of blood, on the basis of an African-ness that cannot conjoin with American, in case this isn't enough to call into question the legitimacy of Obama's presidency, the authors add an element of hatred for those understood as poor and undeserving and out of place: he is a squatter in the White House.
By common consensus, bankers (and by this I mean the term as it's used in the tri-state metro area: to describe anybody who works at a relatively high level in the financial services industry) blew it.
But they couldn't have created the Dumb Money debacle without a substantial assist from economists. Toiling in government and academia, at trade groups and Wall Street firms, practitioners of the dismal science provided the intellectual ballast and justification for much of the insanity of this past decade. At every step of the way, as an Era of Cheap Money devolved into an Era of Dumb Money and then into an Era of Dumber Money, Ph.D.s led the cheers. And when things started to go bad, they failed to grasp just how bad things would get. (Except for a few of them, such as ...)
In February, I recounted some of the economists' most egregious errors. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve System, was easily the most influential economist of the last quarter-century. His intellectual virtues were many. So, it turns out, were his intellectual sins. Greenspan spent his career evangelizing for the Holy Trinity of low interest rates, deregulated markets, and the ability of financial innovation to insulate markets from calamities. Oops! The persistence of low interest rates sparked a speculative orgy in securities and derivatives. The tools that were supposed to help people manage risk instead created systemic risk. And deregulated, free, and open markets blew up so badly they required massive government interventions. The disaster was a feature of the financial operating code Greenspan had helped write, not a bug. (Bonus Greenspan screw-up: telling borrowers in February 2004 that adjustable-rate mortgages could help people save money—just as he was about to start boosting short-term rates.) Greenspan wasn't the lone academic economist at fault. During the credit bubble, Greenspan's successor and many other prominent economists provided intellectual cover for our vices, failure, and greed. Ben Bernanke helped assuage concerns that interest rates were dangerously low by arguing first that interest rates should be low if deflation is nearly as much a worry as inflation and then that low rates stemmed from a global savings glut. David Malpass, chief economist of Bear Stearns, said we shouldn't fret about the pathetically low national savings rate at a time when everybody owned stocks and houses. Rising asset markets would do the heavy lifting of savings. Late into the housing boom, David Lereah, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, continually urged Americans to buy houses. After all, he promised, they'd rise in value at least through the end of the decade.
While the performance of many prominent economists during the boom was poor, their performance after it ended may have been worse. As a class—again, with significant exceptions—they failed to recognize that the fall of housing, which started in the summer of 2006, would have negative effects on the economy ("The worst may be over for housing," Greenspan declared on Oct. 9, 2006) and on the financial system. In November 2007, Bernanke estimated the losses stemming from subprime as being "in the ballpark" of $150 billion. (Must have been a really big ballpark.) Neither of the nation's chief economists, despite spending their days poring over economic data and meeting with professional economists inside and outside the Fed, seemed to have a clue that the virus of bad lending had spread far beyond subprime and far beyond housing and far beyond America's borders.
Economic forecasting is hard. But the dismal scientists collectively did a horrific job of prognostication as the economy shifted into recession and then plummeted into a sharp contraction. The recession, we now know, started in December 2007. The Blue Chip forecasters surveyed by the Philadelphia Fed in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the recession was about to start, projected the economy would grow by 2.5 percent in 2008 and the economy would add more than 100,000 jobs each month in 2008. (Instead, the economy lost jobs every month in 2008 and ground to a halt.) In the middle of the fourth quarter of 2008, one in which the economy was shrinking at a 6.3 percent annual rate, they took down their forecast for the quarter from 0.7 percent growth to a decline at a 2.9 percent annual rate. They projected the unemployment rate would be 7 percent in the first quarter of 2009. By March 2009, it was up to 8.5 percent.
With the financial markets seeming to stabilize in recent weeks, major Wall Street players are digging in against fundamental changes. And while it clearly wants to install serious supervision, the Obama administration - along with other key authorities like the New York Fed - appears willing to stand back while Wall Street resurrects much of the ultracomplex global trading system that helped lead to the worst financial collapse since the Depression.
At issue is whether trading in credit default swaps and other derivatives - and the giant, too-big-to-fail firms that traded them - will be allowed to dominate the financial landscape again once the crisis passes. As things look now, that is likely to happen. And the firms may soon be recapitalized and have a lot more sway in Washington - all of it courtesy of their supporters in the Obama administration. With its Public-Private Investment Program set to bid up and buy toxic assets, the administration is handing these companies another giant federal subsidy. But this time the money will come through the back door, bypassing Congress, mainly via FDIC loans. No one is quite sure how the program will work yet, but it's very likely going to make a lot of the same Wall Street houses much richer at taxpayer expense. Meanwhile, the big banks that still need help will almost certainly get another large infusion once the stress tests are completed by the end of the month.
The financial industry isn't leaving anything to chance, however. One sign of a newly assertive Wall Street emerged recently when a bevy of bailed-out firms, including Citigroup, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, formed a new lobby calling itself the Coalition for Business Finance Reform. Its goal: to stand against heavy regulation of "over-the-counter" derivatives, in other words customized contracts that are traded off an exchange. Companies like these kinds of contracts, which are agreed to privately between firms, because they allow them to tailor a hedge perfectly against a firm-specific risk for a certain time period. But in order to preserve its right to negotiate these cheaper private contracts, Wall Street is apparently willing to argue for the same lack of public transparency and to permit the systemic risk that led to the crash.