15 December, 2002Issue 2.1PhilosophyPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Psychoanalyzing September 11?

Jeff Kulkarni

Slavoj Žižek
Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Verso, 2002
96 pages

To mark the first anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, the global news media surveyed a multitude of opinions. Everyone from Boise, Idaho, to the fabled ‘Arab Street’ offered their views on how the terrorist attacks had changed the world. However, despite the exhaustive coverage, a void remained: What were they thinking in Ljubljana? In particular, what did the Slovenian capital’s best-known public intellectual, the oddball Lacanian pscyhoanalytic theorist Slavoj Žižek, have to say? Luckily London’s Verso Books has come to the rescue, releasing Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real as part of a triumvirate of works by European intellectuals addressing the first anniversary of the attacks.

Žižek is far more famous than might ordinarily be expected of a Central European disciple of Lacan, primarily because he sprinkles his theoretical analyses with examples drawn from both high and low culture. Welcome to the Desert of the Real shows him just as at home with the obscure Yugoslav Serb movie Pretty Village, Pretty Flame as he is with The Bridges of Madison County. Indeed, the book’s title is drawn from a quote by ‘Morpheus’, Laurence Fishburne’s character in The Matrix.

Pop culture not only functions as a tool for explaining theory, it also serves as an object of the theoretical gaze. Thus he seeks to show that abstract theory has direct relevance to everyday life.

Although the subject matter of Žižek’s work is accessible, the same cannot be said of his stream-of-consciousness writing style. To say that he goes off on tangents would be inaccurate, for the word ‘tangent’ implies at least a small connection between successive arguments. Lacking any structure, Žižek deliberately jumps from metaphor to film clip to quotation, disorienting the reader: you have no idea where he is going with his thoughts.

But this is not merely postmodern slight of hand. Žižek gets you lost in order to detach you from your intellectual prejudices. The flow of the argument loops around in a circle, causing you to realize that you hold a belief exactly opposing the one you thought you believed. In achieving this Lacanian inversion, he sheds light on the lies we tell ourselves, and this is the book’s success.

Welcome to the Desert of the Real opens with one such inversion. A cliché about September 11 is that it represented a ‘real’ outside world penetrating the prosperous fantasy world of the United States. However, Žižek inverts this by observing that prior to the attacks, there were countless films, such as Independence Day, that depicted the destruction of major American landmarks. Last fall, we were inundated with examples of the movies and album covers that had to be airbrushed or shelved because they depicted events too similar to the tragedy. Thus, Žižek argues:

The question we should have asked ourselves as we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: Where have we already seen the same thing over and over again? The fact that the September 11 attacks were the stuff of popular fantasies long before they actually took place provides yet another case of the twisted logic of dreams: it is easy to account for the fact that poor people around the world dream about becoming Americans—so what do the well-to-do Americans, immobilized in their well-being, dream about? About a global catastrophe that would shatter their lives—why? This is what psychoanalysis is about: to explain why, in the midst of well-being, we are haunted by visions of catastrophes.

So, rather than representing the real world invading our peaceful fantasy world, September 11 actually constituted the violent fantasy world of our imagination asserting itself on our reality. The distinction is not merely semantic, for Lacanians view these fantasies as symptoms of a mental malady. The ultimate objective of Lacanian psychoanalytic treatment is to ‘traverse the fantasy’—and this is not what it may first appear to be. The point is not to discard the fantasy so that the patient can exist peacefully in an unproblematic ‘reality’. Rather, it is to recognize that there are components of the real that are so traumatic we cannot assimilate them fully into our picture of reality. Since we usually experience these components of the real as fantasy, the goal is to recognize their veracity.

The malady that Žižek wants to submit for psychoanalytic treatment is original and promising. Tragedies bear the capacity to shock either because we thought them to be the stuff of fiction, or because we never thought of them at all. Why was the World Trade Center attack the former rather than the latter? What component of the real does this symptom reveal that we were trying to suppress? On the first anniversary of the attacks, what does this teach us about our attempts to remember, and then overcome, the trauma of the event?

These questions remain unanswered by Žižek’s book. After establishing an ambitious project, Žižek retreats into platitudes; what follows is not applied psychoanalysis, but pedestrian critical observations repackaged in exotic theoretical wrapping paper. Žižek observes that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were previously supported by the United States, that the Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by a home-grown extremist, that Al Qaeda is an example of globalization’s many discontents, and that in fighting the war on terrorism, America is trampling on many of the civil liberties essential to the American way of life. These are all valid points and have been made countless times before, accompanied by far deeper analysis.

Perhaps a greater failure than his lack of originality is his lack of a solid point. The main argument of Welcome to the Desert of the Real seems to be that we shouldn’t choose from false dichotomies—something, I imagine, few would contest. He emphasizes that he feels sympathy not only for the victims of September 11, but for all victims of injustice, including victims of American injustices.

That is hardly earth-shattering, given that the two are not mutually exclusive. Sympathy doesn’t run out because you have used it once. He also says the forced choice between unquestioning support of all US policy or of fundamentalism amounts to a false dichotomy. Well, that much is obvious. The clear middle ground is to reject some, many, or all of the Bush administration’s policies without at the same time supporting Al Qaeda. His final major argument is that:

The democratic political order is of its very nature susceptible to corruption. The ultimate choice is: do we accept and endorse this corruption in a spirit of resigned wisdom, or can we summon up the courage to formulate a leftist alternative to democracy in order to break the vicious cycle of democratic corruption and the rightist campaign to get rid of it?

Here he actually reinforces a false dichotomy rather than arguing that we shouldn’t have to choose from one. Why must we replace democracy rather than reform it? Thus, his first two major arguments are obvious, while the final one is obviously wrong.

The failure of Welcome to the Desert of the Real raises the issue of why one might have expected something significant in the first place. What could a Lacanian psychoanalyst say about a current event that hasn’t already been said by the thousands of journalists and political analysts around the world? This question speaks directly to the debate spurred by Judge Richard Posner’s recent work, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Posner is aware of the irony that he, a conservative public intellectual par excellence in the United States, is launching such an argument, but he nonetheless goes on to pillory those specialists in narrow fields who nonetheless address issues of ‘broad public concern.’

On the other side of the debate stands what Diego Gambetta of All Souls College calls ‘Claro’ cultures, where public intellectuals are objects of out-and-out reverence. In these cultures, a holistic model of knowledge prevails. This means that people are afraid to admit ignorance on any particular subject because that would imply ignorance across the board.

Further, an intellectual’s proven expertise in a particular discipline is seen as an indicator of much wider knowledge; hence the Italian term tuttologi—people ready to give their views on just about anything to just about anyone.

There is a middle ground between the Claro and Posner extremes, where intellectuals apply their methodological approaches to subject matters from outside of their discipline—for example, Gary Becker employing the principles of economics to explain marriage patterns, and Stanley Fish using literary theory to deconstruct the critique of affirmative action.

What makes these interventions bear fruit is not the fact that we assume, following the Claro cultures, that knowledge in a narrow field is proof of general expertise. Rather, we recognize expertise in a particular form of analysis, which when applied to a new subject matter, has the potential to bring latent dimensions of the issue to the surface. Continuing with our examples, history and literature have always drawn attention to the underlying material elements of marriage, and yet the disciplines which usually analyze the institution have tended to emphasize its psychological and moral elements at the expense of all other considerations. In the case of affirmative action, the dominant legal approach focuses on a conflict between rights, while Fish’s analysis shows how the critique of affirmative action actually depends on a peculiar narrative of personal achievement.

It is their expertise in a particular methodology, rather than a particular subject matter, that grants public intellectuals the potential to comment effectively on matters of ‘broad public concern’. Only when intellectuals disregard this link between methodology and authority do their efforts ring hollow. At that point, the putative public intellectual really is no different from the proverbial ‘man on the street’ interviewed on the evening news for a five-second blurb. Such is the fate of Slavoj Žižek in Welcome to the Desert of the Real; he fails to connect his substantive arguments to his ambitious psychoanalytic project.

In the course of the work, he attacks the American refrain that ‘nothing will be the same after September 11’. ‘Significantly,’ he says, ‘this phrase is never really elaborated—it is just an empty gesture of saying something “deep” without really knowing what to say.’ Unfortunately for Žižek, that criticism applies all too well to his own book.

Jeff Kulkarni is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, where he is writing a DPhil thesis entitled ‘Central Bank Independence as Ideology: Disinflation, Dissimulation, and Labour Market Deregulation’.