"There is something inherently ‘terroristic’ in every authentic act, in its gesture as thoroughly redefining the rules of the game". (Zizek)

We live in a free society. We enjoy democratic rights. We have a high standard of living. We belong to an easy-going culture that tolerates difference. So what’s the problem ? Why and from what standpoint can the Left hope to make a critique of the existing order, of capitalism in its current form ?

"It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom - Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." (The Communist Manifesto; 1848)

For me Hegel’s conception of substance as subject suggests one answer to this question. In the Phenomenology Hegel argues that substance — reality, has the same structure as the subject — consciousness, which is what makes possible their ultimate reconciliation in Spirit. In both cases this structure is incomplete, and its negation — what lies outside — is part of its very being, so that consciousness and reality are defined by constant movement, incessant change as they strive to close up this hole at the centre of their being. Spirit, in fact, is this movement which they share. Consciousness seeks to know the reality it is not, to make it its own, but it can never close the gap that makes it consciousness and not reality itself, while at the same time reality does contain consciousness, consciousness is real enough.

One of the most nefarious attributes of late capitalism is its ability to absorb all resistance in the name of acceptance. The concept itself can be seen as incredibly brilliant and extremely dangerous: domination by acceptance. This is exactly what a philosopher like Zizek is referring to when he writes that the "incessant activity of fluid, shifting identities, of building multiple ad hoc coalitions… (in our so called “post” capitalistic society) has something inauthentic about it". By appearing to be working toward equality in terms of acceptance, any possibility of the real political or cultural concerns of these "others" being addressed is handily swept under the protective rug of the so called multiculturalism.

Without this striving to become something other than itself, there would be neither consciousness nor reality, for this is what they are. If consciousness were ever to merge with reality it would no longer be consciousness of reality, and reality would no longer be reality, the object of consciousness.

"Only such gestures which disturb this phantasmic core are authentic acts". (Zizek)

Society, the social substance, consists of the same structure, there is a hole in its very centre, and this hole contains just that which society excludes [negates], what it can not include or else it would self-destruct. And it is at this point of exclusion that a critique of society can begin.

One particularly well-constructed example of this kind of "hegemony of absorption" is: the protest. The modern protest rally, march or cultural radicalism has been made into just another "accepted" event. Instead of attempting to stifle protests and radical culture and treating them as serious security, political and/or moral threats, the strategy has become to surround, or contain the protest. In this manner, the protest, the gesture is allowed to play itself out in the contained setting, effectively rendering the protesters and the artists impotent, eliminating any possibility for systematic change, and preserving the status quo.

How can we discover that which is excluded from our society, given that it is outside and not to be found anywhere around us ? For me or as Lacan said, it is in the ‘traumatic encounter with the Real’ that the truth of our society, of what has been excluded from it in order for it to exist at all, is to be discovered.

Finally then we have come to the question of how any change is affected within a system based upon the "hegemony of absorption." The answer is: it isn’t. In order to affect any real change, the system must be breached. The only properly authentic act, the only act that has the chance to confront the dominant system on more equal footing, is the act that causes the system to in some way lose its own footing. Or as Zizek writes, "This means that there is something inherently ‘terroristic’ in every authentic act, in its gesture as thoroughly redefining the rules of the game".

September 11th, in spite of its nefarious and infamous character was just such an encounter. The system was breached when it was the innocent in New York who died instead of the innocent from the third world as it usually was and still is. The trauma of Sept 11th lay not only in the horror of the collapse of the Twin Towers, after all, destruction of this order makes up the staple of mainstream TV and cinema viewing. As both Zizek and Jean Baudrillard have pointed out, it is precisely because this kind of catastrophic event is so much a part of our culture that the terrorists’ target was in a sense chosen for them by us, suggested to them in countless Hollywood movies and even spelt out in detail by Tom Clancy in his bestselling novel about aircraft crashing into the White House.

So this is where we are left, in the uncomfortable position that mandates radical departure. Yet it seems that this is where we must be if we wish to move beyond the seemingly ubiquitous frontier of late capitalism and its culture. Working comfortably within the system will prove nothing less than an exercise in futility.

Instead the trauma lies in just that aspect of the event that the postmodern Western mind finds most impossible to come to terms with — the reality that there are people out there (Palestine, Colombia, Afghanistan, Mexico) who are willing to give up their lives for a cause they believe in. It is this very idea that is simply unthinkable from the perspective of everyday New York, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm or London life.

Dror Feiler – June 2003

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