Slavoj Žižek From Politics to Biopolitics . . .

and Back

In our Western tradition, the exemplary case of
a traumatic Real is the Jewish Law. In the Jewish tradition, the divine Mosaic Law is experienced as something externally imposed, contingent, and traumatic—in short, as an impossible/real Thing that ‘‘makes the law.’’ What is arguably the ultimate scene of religious-ideological interpellation—the pronouncement of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai—is the very opposite of something that emerges ‘‘organically’’ as the outcome of the path of self-knowing and self-realization. The Judeo-Christian tradition is thus to be strictly opposed to the New Age gnostic problematic of self-realization or self-fulfillment: when the Old Testament enjoins you to love and respect your neighbor, this does not refer to your imaginary semblable/double, but to the neighbor qua traumatic Thing. In contrast to the New Age attitude that ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbor to my mirror image or to the means on the path to self-realization (like the Jungian psychology in which other persons around me are ultimately reduced to the externalizations/projections of the different disavowed aspects of my personality), Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in
The South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3, Spring/Summer 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Duke University Press.

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my Neighbor—the Neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me. The Jewish commandment that prohibits images of God is the obverse of the statement that relating to one’s neighbor is the only terrain of religious practice, of where the divine dimension is present in our lives—‘‘no images of God’’ does not point toward a gnostic experience of the divine beyond our reality, a divine that is beyond any image; on the contrary, it designates a kind of ethical hic Rhodus, hic salta: You want to be religious? Okay, prove it here, in the ‘‘works of love,’’ in the way you relate to your neighbors. . . . We have here a nice case of the Hegelian reversal of reflexive determination into determinate reflection: instead of saying ‘‘God is love,’’ we should say ‘‘Love is divine’’ (and, of course, the point is not to conceive of this reversal as the standard humanist platitude. It is for this precise reason that Christianity, far from standing for a regression toward an image of God, only draws the consequence of the Jewish iconoclasm through asserting the identity of God and man). If, then, the modern topic of human rights is ultimately grounded in this Jewish notion of the Neighbor as the abyss of Otherness, how did we reach the weird contemporary negative link between Decalogue (the traumatically imposed divine Commandments) and human rights? That is to say, within our postpolitical liberal-permissive society, human rights are ultimately, in their innermost, simply the rights to violate the Ten Commandments. ‘‘The right to privacy’’—the right to adultery, done in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe into my life. ‘‘The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property’’—the right to steal (to exploit others). ‘‘Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion’’—the right to lie. ‘‘The right of the free citizens to possess weapons’’—the right to kill. And, ultimately, ‘‘freedom of religious belief ’’—the right to celebrate false gods.1 Of course, human rights do not directly condone the violation of the Commandments—the point is just that they keep open a marginal ‘‘gray zone,’’ which should remain out of reach of (religious or secular) power: in this shady zone, I can violate the commandments, and if the power probes into it, catching me with my pants down and trying to prevent my violations, I can cry, ‘‘Assault on my basic human rights!’’ The point is thus that it is structurally impossible, for the Power, to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the ‘‘misuse’’ of the Right, while not infringing on the proper use—that is, the use that does not violate the Commandments. The first step in this direction was accomplished by the Christian notion

in contrast to the Christian God of Mercy and Love—one opposes the Jewish rigorous Justice and the Christian Mercy. just before the final pardon. superego. to become cruel. No: they shall not have this satisfaction. / I believe the stars conspire to oblige me. in the line for mercy!’’ Living up to his task. . in this very gesture of breaking the chain of Justice through the inexplicable act of Mercy. not so fast. one after the other. it will lament the error until it no longer has memory. / . Let us see. but my heart will not absolve me. it rather makes it infinite—we are forever indebted to the person who pardoned us. of paying our debt. of course. Usually. mighty. in His supreme sacrifice. humans. . you pardon me. which is more constant. is worth more than constant fidelity. . Tito is a thoroughly Christian master. This couplet from the finale blurts out the obscene secret of Clemenza: the pardon does not really abolish the debt. but those whom he pardons are condemned to remember it forever: sextus: It is true. However. Christianity imposes on us an even stronger debt: we are forever indebted to Christ. It is precisely through not demanding from . / . per carita!’’— ‘‘Please. were born in sin. we cannot ever repay our debts and redeem ourselves through our own acts—our only salvation lies in God’s Mercy. while in repentance. In this. Tito himself is exasperated by the proliferation of treasons that oblige him to proliferate acts of clemency: The very moment that I absolve one criminal. No wonder Tito prefers repentance to fidelity: in fidelity to the Master. Judaism is conceived as the religion of the superego (of man’s subordination to the jealous. what attaches me to the Master is the infinite indelible guilt. . I follow him out of respect. The Freudian name for such an excessive pressure that we cannot ever remunerate is. Emperor. . titus: The true repentance of which you are capable. the inexplicable gesture of undeserved pardon: we.From Politics to Biopolitics . One can almost hear Tito complaining: ‘‘Uno per volta. My virtue has already pledged itself to continue the contest. absolve everyone. Tito forgets everyone. / Let it be known to Rome that I am the same and that I know all. In Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. I discover another. and severe God). the treachery of others or my mercy. and Back 503 of grace. in spite of myself. and forget everything. . we cannot ever repay him for what he did for us.

the excess of guilt without proportion to what I effectively did. eager to prove their revolutionary fervor.504 Slavoj Žižek us the price for our sins. (This is why even a great judge is a Master figure: he always somehow twists the law in its application by way of interpreting it creatively. as such. but by providing escapes to being punished by its ambiguity and inconsistency?) Is it not that showing mercy is the only way for a Master to demonstrate his supralegal authority? If a Master were merely to guarantee the full application of the law. Stalin always intervened and said ‘‘Patience! His guilt is not yet proven!’’ or something similar. not only by punishing us for its transgression. the relationship is the opposite one? What if. with regard to law. Of course this was a hypocritical attitude—Stalin was well aware that he himself generated the destructive fervor. as a rule. and you are thus indebted to me forever. that the Christian God of Mercy establishes itself as the supreme superego agency: I paid the highest price for your sins. he would be deprived of his authority and turn into a mere figure of knowledge. while mercy is by definition dispensed as a free and excessive act. we have to display it—mercy is an unnecessary excess that. a figure we definitely do not associate with mercy: one should never forget that. Is this God as the superego agency. nonetheless. . We encounter the same ‘‘unity of opposites’’ in the new capitalist ethics. That is to say. we have the freedom to choose (to obey or violate it)? While mercy is obligatory. of legal regulations. whose very Mercy generates the indelible guilt of believers. that the younger members were eager to please him—but. Is the relationship between law (legal justice) and mercy really the one between necessity and choice? Is it really that one has to obey the law. (And does the law not always take into account this freedom of ours. As such. displayed mercy. the dispensation of mercy is the most efficient constituent of the exercise of power. Stalin’s direct interventions. where the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is. a travesty of mercy? What if. at its best. the ultimate horizon of Christianity? One should effectively correlate the unconditional guilt of superego and the mercy of love—two figures of excess. as the (now-available) minutes of the meetings of the Politburo and Central Committee (CC) from the 1930s demonstrate. as something that the agent of mercy is free to do or not to do—mercy under compulsion is no mercy but. through paying this price for us Himself. has to occur. When younger CC members. the agent of the discourse of university.) This goes even for Stalin himself. demanded instant death penalty for Bukharin. and the excess of mercy without proportion to what I deserve on account of my acts. at a deeper level. the appearance of mercy is necessary here.

his Seminar XVII (1969–1970) on the four discourses. You will get it!’’ This passage can also be conceived in more general terms. you demand a new master. perhaps. and so on). . that is. rather. namely. enables a new approach to Nietzsche: when Nietzsche scornfully dismisses ‘‘slave morality. Which discursive shift underlies this new form of domination? Lacan provides the answer in L’envers de la psychanalyse. the developed countries are constantly ‘‘helping’’ the undeveloped (with aid. Lacan’s underlying premise is skeptic-conservative—Lacan’s diagnosis is best captured by his famous retort to the student revolutionaries: ‘‘As hysterics. this seminar endeavors to demonstrate how structures do walk on the streets. how structural shifts can account for the social outbursts like that of 1968. How. then. are we to read the University Discourse? S2 b a — — S1 a $ The University Discourse is enunciated from the position of ‘‘neutral’’ Knowledge. uncultivated child’’). it addresses the remainder of the real (say. turning it into the sub- . more closely. it merely signaled the shift to the new forms of domination in which the scientific discourse serves to legitimize the relations of domination. the new masters who are no longer ready to assume the title of the Master—slave is Nietzsche’s term for a fake master. . In a superego blackmail of gigantic proportions.From Politics to Biopolitics . Instead of the one symbolic Order with its set of a priori rules that guarantee social cohesion. as the passage from the prerevolutionary ancien régime to the postrevolutionary new Master who does not want to admit that he is one. but proposes himself as a mere ‘‘servant’’ of the People—in Nietzsche’s terms. their complicity in and coresponsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped. and Back 505 today. part of the game: it serves as a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. it is simply the passage from Master’s ethics to slave morality. but. Lacan’s response to the events of 1968—its premise is best captured in his reversal of the well-known antistructuralist graffiti from the Paris walls of 1968. the ‘‘raw. credits.’’ he is not attacking lower classes as such. we get the matrix of the passages from one to another discourse: Lacan’s interest is focused on the passage from the discourse of the Master to the discourse of the university as the hegemonic discourse in contemporary society. in the case of pedagogical knowledge. thereby avoiding the key issue. and this fact. ‘‘Structures do not walk on the streets!’’—if anything. No wonder that the revolt was located at the universities: as such.

At a more common level. we are dealing with pure objective knowledge. and the like. however. addressing the doctor as his Master and asking for reassurance from him.’’ defend- . but rather for its ‘‘indivisible remainder. In the University Discourse. hidden beneath the bar. is power. Production (the fourth term in the matrix of discourses) does not stand for the result of the discursive operation. one can easily discern a worried hystericized subject. but its remainder. Perhaps the exemplary case of the Master’s position that underlies the University Discourse is the way in which medical discourse functions in our everyday lives: at the surface level. of diagnosis and treatment. suffice it to recall the market expert who advocates strong budgetary measures (cutting welfare expenses. beneath it. to assume the imposed symbolic mandate? 2 The key point here is that the expert rule of ‘‘biopolitics’’ is grounded in and conditioned by the crisis of investiture. reducing him to an object of research. obsessed with anxiety. that is. that which eludes the grasp of knowledge-power. for what the discourse itself produces as the foreign body in its very heart. What one should avoid here is the Foucauldian misreading: the produced subject is not simply the subjectivity that arises as the result of the disciplinary application of knowledge-power. to identify with a Master-Signifier. but individuals reduced to bare life? And does the lower not designate what Eric Santner called the ‘‘crisis of investiture’’—the impossibility of the subject to relate to S1. presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things. this crisis generated the ‘‘postmetaphysical’’ survivalist stance of the Last Men. which ends up in an anemic spectacle of life dragging on as its own shadow. the Master-Signifier: the constitutive lie of the University Discourse is that it disavows its performative dimension. Those who assert the ‘‘sacredness of life.’’ for the excess that resists being included in the discursive network—that is. of course.506 Slavoj Žižek ject ($). It is within this horizon that one should appreciate today’s growing rejection of the death penalty: what one should be able to discern is the hidden ‘‘biopolitics’’ that sustains this rejection. which desubjectivizes the subject-patient.) as a necessity imposed by his neutral expertise devoid of any ideological biases: what he conceals is the series of power relations (from the active role of state apparatuses to ideological beliefs) that sustain the ‘‘neutral’’ functioning of the market mechanism. is not the upper level ($—a) that of biopolitics (in the sense deployed from Foucault to Agamben)? Of the expert knowledge dealing with its object which is a—not subjects. The ‘‘truth’’ of the University Discourse.

then everything is permitted—to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God.From Politics to Biopolitics . up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness (the idealized Other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality. (This is also the Last Man’s revolution—‘‘revolution without revolution. ‘‘If God doesn’t exist. in order to have a life full of happiness and pleasures. you can enjoy everything. but deprived of the substance that makes it dangerous. you should avoid dangerous excesses. end up in a world in which. we live in a permissive universe. . of course) as war without warfare. with its ‘‘demystifying’’ presentation of war as a meaningless slaughter which nothing can really justify—as such. Is this not the attitude of the hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted. the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics. but every determinate enjoyment is already a betrayal of the unconditional one. 2) If God is dead. beer without alcohol. clearly. Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. while features like wife-beating remain out of sight)? Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance. drugs. we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine.). superego enjoins you to enjoy. food. the Colin Powell doctrine of war with no casualties (on our side. on behalf of its very official goal—long pleasurable life—all effective pleasures are prohibited or strictly controlled (smoking. you should strive for pleasures and happiness— but. of the resisting hard kernel of the Real—in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being real. everything is prohibited’’: 1) God is dead. The nutritive version of this is to enjoy directly the Thing Itself: Why bother with coffee? Inject caffeine directly into your blood! Why bother with sensual perceptions and excitations by external reality? Take drugs that directly affect your brain! And if there is God. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex. so it should be prohibited. a direct link to God justifies our violation of . cream without fat. etc. it provides the best possible justification for Colin Powell’s ‘‘no-casualtieson-our-side’’ military doctrine.’’) Is this not one of the two versions of Lacan’s anti-Dostoyevsky motto. In today’s market. as the instruments of His will. so everything is prohibited if it is not deprived of its substance. and Back 507 ing it against the threat of transcendent powers that parasitize on it. . Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is the latest example of this survivalist attitude toward dying.

There are two topics that determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude toward Others: the respect of Otherness. or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. where the reference to the big Other of historical Necessity justifies absolute ruthlessness). if democracy is cleansed of its populist ‘‘excesses. etc. the very thing that causes damage should already be the medicine. democracy.’’ Solutions are desperately sought that would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. ‘‘Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?’’ The ultimate goal here would be along the lines of decaf coffee. for the emergeng logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is okay insofar as it really serves to bring about peace. the Other is okay insofar as its presence is not intrusive. The main contender is safe sex. then you return (part of ) them to the needy. Do we not find here a weird version of Wagner’s famous ‘‘Only the spear which caused the wound can heal it’’ from Parsifal? And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs. And the same goes for war. with the paradoxical injunction to eat more chocolate—the very thing that causes constipation—to alleviate constipation. a phrase that makes one appreciate the truth of the saying. smoking. and the obsessive fear of harassment—in short.) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today’s ‘‘biopolitics. insofar as the Other is not really Other. sex.508 Slavoj Žižek any ‘‘merely human’’ constraints and considerations (as in Stalinism. This is emerging as the central ‘‘human right’’ in late-capitalist society: the right not to be harassed. openness toward it.’’ The structure of a product containing the agent of its own containment can be discerned throughout today’s ideological landscape. to be kept at a safe distance from others. available in the United States.’’ . but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide. And does not the same hold true even for democracy and human rights? It is okay if human rights are ‘‘rethought’’ to include torture and a permanent emergency state. Today’s hedonism combines pleasure with constraint—it is no longer the old notion of the ‘‘right measure’’ between pleasure and constraint. to invent ‘‘opium without opium’’: no wonder marijuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it—it already is a kind of ‘‘opium without opium. The ultimate example of it is arguably a chocolate laxative. A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is okay if it is counteracted with charitable activities—first you amass billions.

of the attitude of narcissistic subjectivity that experiences itself as vulnerable. It is impossible not to hear beneath it the unconditional injunction. Superego is thus not directly S2. and Back 509 However. plays the central role. however. it is rather the S1 of the S2 itself. Recall the messages about health we are bombarded with all the time: ‘‘Smoking is dangerous! Too much fat may cause a heart attack! Regular exercise leads to a longer life!’’ and so on. the ultimate traumatic point of biopolitics. individuals are not responsible for the crimes they commit. so they should not be punished? Is. since (violently putting another human being to) death is. the obverse of this thesis not that those who control the circumstances control the people? No wonder the two strongest industrial complexes today are the military and the medical. and so on. that of the constitutive limit and . ‘‘You should enjoy a long and healthy life!’’ What this means is that the discourse of the university is thoroughly mystifying. Within this horizon. the concept of radical. what I am describing cannot but appear as two opposite ideological spaces: that of the reduction of humans to bare life.’’ which asserts the identity of opposites? What the two poles share is precisely the underlying refusal of any higher Causes. the dimension of an unconditional injunction that is inherent to knowledge itself. to homo sacer as the disponible object of the expert caretaking knowledge. and that of the respect for the vulnerable Other brought to an extreme. . Nowhere is the complicity of these two levels clearer as in the case of the opposition to the death penalty—no wonder. that of destroying and that of prolonging life. constantly exposed to a multitude of potential ‘‘harassments. the politics of the administration of life.’’ Is there a stronger contrast than the one between the respect for the Other’s vulnerability and the reduction of the Other to ‘‘mere life’’ regulated by the administrative knowledge? But what if these two stances nonetheless rely on the same root. ‘‘irrepresentable’’ Evil. quite logically. be it holocaust or gulag. the notion that the ultimate goal of our lives is life itself. concealing its true foundation. psychological. ideological. what if they are the two aspects of one and the same underlying attitude. obfuscating the unfreedom on which it relies. and like circumstances: the notion of the morally/legally responsible subject is an ideological fiction whose function is to cover up the network of power relations.From Politics to Biopolitics . what if they coincide in what one is tempted to designate as the contemporary case of the Hegelian ‘‘infinite judgement. To put it in Foucauldian terms. is the abolition of the death penalty not part of a certain biopolitics that considers crime as the result of social. .

interventions. Second.510 Slavoj Žižek point of reference of today’s predominant notion of democracy: democracy means avoiding the ‘‘totalitarian’’ extreme.’’ but in the sense of ‘‘impossible that happened. which remain strategic interventions. but being just the absence of Good: Good itself is the absence of Evil. the distance toward the Evil Thing. we have thus what Derrida calls the unconditional ethical injunction. but I claim that. it directly presupposes it: it is only through an act that I effectively assume the big Other’s inexistence. there are (also) political acts: politics cannot be reduced to the level of strategic-pragmatic interventions. the notion of act not only does not contradict the ‘‘lack in the Other. I enact the impossible. to (pretend to) act on behalf of the Thing Itself. which can be given different names.’’ This is why Antigone was of interest to me: her act is not a strategic intervention that maintains the gap toward the impossible Void—it rather tends to ‘‘absolutely’’ enact the Impossible.’’ which. it is thus as if one should turn around the well-known Augustinian notion of Evil as having no positive substance or force of its own. One should evoke two arguments against this position: First. as is the case in Ioannis Stavrakakis’s recent critical reply to my reading of Antigone. Ironically. which pertains to human finitude. and all positive acts always fall short of this primordial lack. which then leads to a totalitarian desastre. I neglect. it is defined as a permanent struggle against the ‘‘totalitarian’’ temptation to close the gap. which focuses on the danger of what he calls the ‘‘absolutization’’ of the event. ‘‘Acts’’ in Lacan’s sense precisely suspend this gap—they are ‘‘impossible’’ not in the sense of ‘‘impossible to happen. namely what appears as impossible within the coordinates of the existing sociosymbolic order. opening. and positive acts.’’ he thereby surreptitiously introduces a difference. the opposition between a ‘‘crazy’’ destructive gesture and a strategic political decision . in Lacan’s later versions of the act. only within the framework of another fidelity. In a radical political act. that is. impossible to fulfill. this moment of ‘‘madness’’ beyond strategic intervention remains. according to Stavrakakis. I am well aware of the ‘‘lure’’ of such an act. When Stavrakakis writes that ‘‘fidelity to an event can flourish and avoid absolutization only as an infidel fidelity. It is this liberal blackmail of dismissing every radical political act as evil that one should thoroughly reject—even when it is coated in Lacanian colors. fidelity to the openness of the political space and to the awareness of the constitutive impossibility of a final suture of the social. between the unconditional-ethical and the pragmatico-political: the original fact is the lack. In this precise sense.

’’ transstrategic. an outlaw community deep in the Brazilian backlands that was home to prostitutes. and the most wretched of the poor. . thereby displaying a purity of desire beyond any sociopolitical transformative action? First. The point is not simply that. such ‘‘apolitical’’ defiance on behalf of ‘‘decency’’ or ‘‘old customs’’ even the very model of heroic political resistance? Second. hers was not a pure symbolic striving for death. as risky as they can be. property. to pursue the trend of self-organized collectives in areas outside the law. albeit in a negative way? Is not. in some sense. The echoes of Canudos are clearly discernible in today’s favelas in Latin American megalopolises: Are they. and marriage. beggars. but an unconditional insistence on a particular symbolic ritual. And this brings us to the key dilemma: the reference to democracy involves the rejection of the radical attempts to ‘‘step outside. and Back 511 momentarily breaks down—which is why it is theoretically and politically wrong to oppose strategic political acts. who acts on behalf of the common good) political. . but.From Politics to Biopolitics . nor its ‘‘crazy’’ destructive negation. This is the key point: an act is neither a strategic intervention into the existing order.’’ to risk a radical break. once we are thoroughly engaged in a political project.’’ the cells of futural self-organized societies? Are institutions like community kitchens not a model of ‘‘socialized’’ commu- . it was destroyed by the military forces of the Brazilian government. to radical ‘‘suicidal’’ gestures à la Antigone. led by an apocalyptic prophet. taxes. apparently. freaks. . was a utopian space without money. more precisely. the novel about Canudos. is Antigone’s act really outside politics. no political goal. Arguably the greatest literary monument to such a utopia comes from an unexpected source—Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World (1981). . we are ready to put everything at stake for it. that only such an ‘‘impossible’’ gesture of pure expenditure can change the very coordinates of what is strategically possible within a historical constellation. for symbolic and real death. Canudos. ‘‘apolitical’’? Is not her defiance of the order of the supreme power (Creon. her gesture is not simply pure desire for death—to do that. an act is an ‘‘excessive. inclusive of our lives. intervention that redefines the rules and contours of the existing order. gestures of pure self-destructive ethical insistence with. In 1897. in certain extreme circumstances. So what about the reproach that Antigone not only risks death or suspends symbolic order—my determination of a political act—but that she actively strives for death. bandits. not the first ‘‘liberated territories. she could have directly killed herself and spared the people around her all the fuss .

up to the religious ‘‘fanaticism. of an alternative community that thoroughly negates the existing state space. the will whose extreme and terrifying expression is the well-known accident from the Vietnam war: after the United States Army occupied a local village. but more on the UN or U. the defeated ones. Although difficult to sustain as a literal model to follow. In a similar way. the more they served as a tool of the United States. There is a will to accomplish the ‘‘leap of faith’’ and step out of the global circuit that is at work here.’’ It is as if.) Until now. were the true danger. when Sendero Luminoso took over a village. the village was retaken by the Vietcong. they did not focus on killing the soldiers or policemen stationed there. a day later. when. has to be endorsed in its basic intention. violence of the destruction of these communities (in 1897 Brazil. agricultural consultants or health workers trying to help the local peasants—after lecturing them for hours and then forcing them to confess publicly their complicity with imperialism.512 Slavoj Žižek nal local life? The Canudos liberated territory in Bahia will remain forever the model of a liberated space.’’ excessive. not the police or the army. children and women included. at the point where the enemy ‘‘indeed helps us. they cut off the left arm of all vaccinated children. acquires a space of its own. this thorough rejection of the Enemy precisely in its helping ‘‘humanitarian’’ aspect.’’ that displays a true revolutionary autonomy and ‘‘sovereignty’’ (to use this term in its Bataillean meaning). the enemy at its most perfidious. their doctors vaccinated the children on their left arm in order to demonstrate their humanitarian care. Utopia existed here for a brief period of time—this is the only way to account for the ‘‘irrational. It is only such a strike against the enemy at his best. no matter what the costs. as if the very memory of the possibility of freedom had to be erased—and this by a government that presented itself as ‘‘progressive’’ liberal-democratic-republican. the Sendero Luminoso shot them. all inhabitants of Canudos. Everything is to be endorsed here. it was sustained by the correct insight: they. If one adopts the attitude of ‘‘let . such communities exploded from time to time as passing phenomena. in such communities. a site of eternity that interrupted the flow of temporal progress—one should have the courage to recognize them in the wide span from the Jesuit reduciones in eighteenthcentury Paraguay (brutally destroyed by the joint action of Spanish and Portuguese armies) up to the settlements controlled by Sendero Luminoso in 1990s Peru.S. were slaughtered. Brutal as this procedure was. the Benjaminian other side of the historical Progress. since they were ‘‘lying in the guise of truth’’—the more they were ‘‘innocent’’ (they ‘‘really’’ tried to help the peasants).

. the Welfare State capitalist democracy is incomparably better—what redeems the Stalinist ‘‘totalitarianism’’ is the formal aspect. ghettos).From Politics to Biopolitics . in spite of its horrors and failures—a kind of ‘‘liberated territory. Of course. that. the secret hope of ‘‘democratic socialists’’ was the direct democracy of the ‘‘soviets. up to liberals like Hannah Arendt who perceived in them the echo of the old Greek life of polis. the moment one compares the positive content of the two.’’ Since today capitalism defines and structures the totality of the human civilization. as to their positive content. What we are dealing with here is the old structural notion of the gap between the Space and the positive content that fills it in: although. Can one imagine a utopian point at which this subterranean level of the utopian Other Space would unite with the positive space of ‘‘normal’’ social life? The key political question is here: Is there in our ‘‘postmodern’’ time still a space for such communities? Are they limited to the undeveloped outskirts (favelas. by its attempt to escape the logic of the Capital. Throughout the age of the Really Existing Socialism (RES).’’ as Fred Jameson put it apropos of Cuba. so shocking for the liberal sensitivity: better the worse Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy. or is a space for them emerging in the very heart of the ‘‘postindustrial’’ landscape? Can one make a wild wager that the dynamics of ‘‘postmodern’’ capitalism with its rise of new eccentric geek communities provides a new chance here. the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure.) This is how one should understand Alain Badiou’s mieux vaut un desastre qu’un desetre. (What the anti-Communist dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very space from which they themselves criticized and denounced the everyday terror and misery was opened and sustained by the Communist breakthrough. enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself. generating terror and misery. the space of utopian expectations. among other things. and Back 513 us take from the enemy what is good and reject or even fight against what is bad. this emancipatory shadow that haunted it all the time also disappeared.’’ one is already caught in the liberal trap of ‘‘humanitarian help. which. at the same time they opened up a certain space. . the space it opens up. perhaps for the first time in history. the logic of alternative communities can be grafted onto the latest state of technology? The main form of such alternative communities in the twentieth century were so-called councils (‘‘soviets’’)—(almost) everybody in the West loved them. every ‘‘Communist’’ territory was and is—again. Is . and it is deeply symptomatic how. with the decline of RES.’’ the local councils as the form of self-organization of the people.

and to simply encompass them within the scope of the same notion amounts to the same obscenity as equating starvation with dieting. it is even being ‘‘reinvented’’ and given a new boost by the rise of the ‘‘postindustrial’’ digital culture (do the descriptions of the new ‘‘tribal’’ communities of computer hackers not often evoke the logic of councils democracy?). and there is the specter of homo sacer haunting them all. in spite of all his political compromises. however. But should we still call it democracy? At this point. it is Habermas who is ‘‘postmodern. it is crucial to avoid what one cannot but call the ‘‘democratic trap. . the resigned ‘‘postmodern’’ acceptance of the fact that society is a complex network of ‘‘subsystems. things really so simple? First. police. institutionalized rules of political life. even the ‘‘complex’’ contemporary societies still rely on the basic divide between included and excluded. its inherent transgression with no substantial positive content of its own.’’ excluded from the space of the polis—there are citizens. And those excluded do not simply dwell in a psychotic nonstructured Outside—they have (and are forced into) their own self-organization. so that a totally self-transparent society is a utopia with totalitarian potentials? 3 (In this sense. to the end remained attached to a radically utopian vision of revolutionary redemption. one of the names (and practices) of which was precisely the council democracy. In other words. Second.514 Slavoj Žižek this not the ultimate confirmation of the fact that the council version of ‘‘democratic socialism’’ was just a spectral double of the ‘‘bureaucratic’’ RES. legal order.’’ in contrast to Adorno who.’’ which is why a certain level of ‘‘alienation’’ is constitutive of social life. unable to serve as the permanent basic organizing principle of a society? What both RES and council democracy shared is the belief in the possibility of a self-transparent organization of society that would preclude political ‘‘alienation’’ (state apparatuses. the awareness that politics is a complex game in which a certain level of institutional alienation is irreducible should not lead us to ignore the fact that there is still a line of separation that divides those who are ‘‘in’’ from those who are ‘‘out.) Are. The fashionable notion of ‘‘multitude’’ is insufficient precisely insofar as it cuts across this divide: there is a multitude within the system and the multitude of those excluded.’’ Many ‘‘radical’’ leftists accept the legalistic logic of ‘‘transcendental guarantee’’: they refer to democracy as the ultimate guarantee of those who are aware that there is no guarantee. direct democracy is not only still alive in many places like favelas. and so on—and is the basic experience of the end of RES not precisely the rejection of this shared feature.

things were never the same again. one should fully assume the risk. it is one of the forms of struggle. a referendum on divorce where. Democracy is not merely the ‘‘power of. After this speech. (There were elements of the event even in the unexpected first electoral victory of Francois Mitterand. a political agent has to commit acts that can only be authorized by himself.From Politics to Biopolitics . democracy is not so much the guarantee of the right choice as a kind of opportunistic insurance against possible failure: if things turn out wrong. beyond and above the mere numeral majority. ‘‘the Soviet regime never fully recovered. of a progressive military dictatorship. for which there is no external guarantee. On the other hand. Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes was a true political act—as William Taubman put it. In this precise sense. this last refuge must be dropped. I can always say we are all responsible. decades ago in Italy. so no wonder that. as a reaction to the speech. so that even the Left.) It is only in such cases that one is justified in saying that. . was ashamed of its distrust. The only adequate position is the one advocated already by Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness: democratic struggle should not be fetishized. and Back 515 That is to say. nobody has the right to impose his choice on others— which means that every collective choice has to be democratically legitimized. the prodivorce side convincingly won. The present crisis thus compels us to rethink democracy itself as today’s Master-Signifier. an authentic act of popular will can also occur in the form of a violent revolution.’’ 4 Although the opportunist motives for this daring move are plain enough. An authentic political act can be. From this perspective. people effectively have spoken in a substantial sense of the term. Consequently. and for the . there was clearly more than mere calculation to it. since no political act can claim a direct foundation in some transcendent figure of the big Other (of the ‘‘we are just instruments of a higher Necessity or Will’’ type). after this speech. since every such act involves the risk of a contingent decision. to the great surprise also of the Left which distrusted the people. and so on. and its choice should be determined by a global strategic assessment of circumstances. and neither did he. privately skeptical. . by. the fundamental dogma of the infallible leadership was undermined. a democratic one as well as a nondemocratic one. as to its form. the entire nomenklatura sank into temporary paralysis. There are some elections or referendums in which ‘‘the impossible happens’’—recall. not by its ostensibly superior intrinsic value. a kind of reckless excess that cannot be accounted for by strategic reasoning. Like the Lacanian analyst.

A crucial component of any populism is also the dismissal of the formal democratic procedure: even if these rules are still respected. we don’t know it—and. and of the patent meaninglessness of the fact that a couple hundred Floridian voices will determine who will be president.516 Slavoj Žižek people. Those old enough still remember the boring attempts of ‘‘democratic Socialists’’ to oppose to the miserable RES the vision of authentic socialism—to such attempts. many a democrat would concede that the people were not yet ‘‘mature’’ enough to be allowed democracy. formal legalism: its minimal definition is the unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game. the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. presidential elections of 2000 were effectively democratic: in spite of obvious electoral manipulations. whatever electoral manipulation took place. among other places. Democracy means that. a substantial part of them) would tolerate the suspension of democracy: What if the formally free elections are won by an antidemocratic party whose platform promises the abolition of formal democracy? (This did happen. Consequently. every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. verified through plebiscites and mass gatherings. and that some kind of enlightened despotism whose aim will be to educate the majority into proper democrats is preferable.’’ It is not enough just to claim that. because there was no substantial ‘‘message’’ behind the result at all. there is at least one case in which formal democrats themselves (or. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections. at least. it is always made clear that they do not provide the crucial legitimacy to political agents—populism rather evokes the direct pathetic link between the charismatic leadership and the crowd. it seems politically much more . above all. In this sense. we just don’t know what they said. the standard Hegelian answer is quite sufficient: the failure of reality to live up to its notion always bears witness to the inherent weakness of this notion itself.S. Bill Clinton made an appropriate acerbic comment: ‘‘The American people have spoken. in Algeria a couple of years ago. the U. Democracy—in the way this term is used today—concerns. maybe. the will and interests (the two in no way automatically coincide) of the large majority determine the state decisions. in democracy.’’ This comment should be taken more seriously than it was meant: even now.) In such a case. But why should the same also not hold for democracy itself ? Is it also not all too simple to oppose to the ‘‘reallyexisting’’ liberal capitalo-democracy a more true ‘‘radical’’ democracy? Interestingly enough.

the time has come to shift the accent from ‘‘differently’’ to ‘‘think’’: ‘‘Freedom is freedom for those who think differently’’—only for those who really think. as we put it.’’ that is. Would it not be easier In that case for the government To dissolve the people and elect another? 5 However. and Back 517 productive and theoretically much more adequate to limit ‘‘democracy’’ to the translation of antagonism into agonism: while democracy acknowledges the irreducible plurality of interests.’’ This is the sense in which one should render problematic democracy: Why should the Left always and unconditionally respect the formal democratic ‘‘rules of the game’’? Why should it not. so that whoever wins. the obverse of his letter of solidarity with the East German Communist regime published in Neues Deutschland—to put it brutally.From Politics to Biopolitics . it excludes those who. put in question the legitimacy of the outcome of a formal democratic procedure? All democratic leftists venerate Rosa Luxembourg’s famous ‘‘Freedom is freedom for those who think differently. not for those who just blindly (unthinkingly) act out their opinions. In his famous short poem ‘‘The Solution’’ from 1953 (published in 1956). to bring about the transubstantiation of the ‘‘old’’ opportunistic people (the inert ‘‘crowd’’) into a . . and the like. this poem is not only politically opportunistic. even if differently. in some circumstances. ideologies. Brecht wanted to cover both his flanks. at least. Bertolt Brecht mocks the arrogance of the Communist nomenklatura when faced with the workers’ revolt: After the uprising of the 17th June The Secretary of the Writers Union Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee Stating that the people Had forfeited the confidence of the government And could win it back only By redoubled efforts. to profess his support for the regime as well as to hint at his solidarity with the workers. .’’ Perhaps. he will be on the winning side— but also simply wrong in the theoretico-political sense: one should bravely admit that it effectively is a duty—the duty even—of a revolutionary party to ‘‘dissolve the people and elect another. narratives. reject the democratic rules of the game—liberal democrats are quite right in claiming that populism is inherently ‘‘antidemocratic.

to be told things that she did not know. . or the playwright’s. its transformation into arbitrary power. the more they are experienced as figures of power. It was. She complains that her teacher . further complications to Williams’s view. What this means is that one should gather the courage to question radically today’s predominant attitude of antiauthoritarian tolerance. the same goes for parental education: a father who exerts true transferential authority will never be experienced as ‘‘oppressive’’—it is. his subject. And. because of the change in the sociosymbolic field.’’ There are. enables authority appears as illegitimate power. First. . He does not exercise authority. what to ask. in part gender power. in order to learn something. she complains that he exercises power over her. but an effect of the social relationship between the master and his subjects: even if the master remains the same. on the contrary. who does not want to impose on his chil- .518 Slavoj Žižek revolutionary body aware of its historical task. controlling. Bernard Williams who.6 Power appears (is experienced) ‘‘as such’’ at the very point where it is no longer covered by ‘‘authority. a father who tries to be permissive. its restraining from exercising authority by directing. outlined the limits of this attitude: A complaint constantly made by the female character is that she has made sacrifices to come to college. Therein resides the vicious cycle of today’s academia: the more professors renounce ‘‘authoritarian’’ active teaching. Far from being an easy task. however. does not control or direct her enough: he does not tell her what to believe. The male character has power over her (he can decide what grade she gets). as every parent knows. this power is mere power. imposing knowledge and values. but it is not. This might seem to be a muddle on her part. it may happen. Where Williams is right is in his emphasis on how the very permissiveness of the power-figure. The lesson of all revolutions from 1789 to 1989 is that such a disintegration of authority. that his position is no longer perceived as legitimate authority. ‘‘authority’’ is not simply a direct property of the master figure. or even. perhaps. surprisingly. but just because he lacks authority. in his perspicuous reading of David Mamet’s Oleanna. At the same time. but that she has been offered only a feeble permissiveness. but as mere illegitimate power (is such a shift not the most elementary gesture of feminism: male authority is all of a sudden unmasked as mere power?). always precedes the revolutionary outbreak. to ‘‘dissolve the people and elect another’’ is the most difficult of them all.

‘‘It is allowed to kill’’ would amount to simple immoral permissivity.From Politics to Biopolitics . . as Every living creature knows. but Without betraying the speaker. but ourselves too if need be Since only force can alter this Murderous world.7 The text does not say ‘‘we are allowed to kill. which. is not the same as the direct positive assertion. to the anti-Antigonean prohibition to provide for the proper funeral ritual: the young comrade has to ‘‘vanish. but the extremely disciplined revolutionary collective. and Back 519 dren his views and values. . and vanish entirely’’—that is. ‘‘it is ordered to kill’’ would transform killing into an obsceneperverse superego injunction that is the truth of the first version (as Lacan put it. Toward the end of Brecht’s Die Massnahme. as being ‘‘oppressive. The injunction that holds together such a collective is best encapsulated by the logical form of double negation (prohibition). . we said Not given to us not to kill. the permitted jouissance inexorably turned into a prescribed one).’’ The paradox to be fully endorsed here is that the only way to effectively abolish power relations leads through freely accepted relations of authority: the model of a free collective is not a group of libertines indulging in their pleasures. Winning. which goes to the end. simply. The only correct way is thus the reversal of the biblical prohibition. but Without betraying the winner. in the ‘‘Praise of Illegal Activity. the Four Agitators declare: It is a terrible thing to kill. his disappearance (death) itself should disappear. should not leave any (symbolic) traces. But not only others would we kill. that is denounced as exerting power. the prohibition not to kill. Brecht’s precision is here admirable: the double negation is crucial.’’ but ‘‘it is still not permitted (an adequate paraphrase of vergönnen) to us not to kill’’—or. precisely.’’ the Control Chorus sings: Speaking. It is still. This radical stance is the logical conclusion of the self-erasure of the revolutionary agent who is denied not only public recognition. it is still prohibited to us not to kill. but even posthumous recognition after his death. but allows them to discover their own way.

’’ this leaves him with no alternative to taking an unpleasant action—and.’’ but erasing oneself behind the enunciated. when we ‘‘must’’ do something. I just hate to be a pianist’’) also goes for the revolutionary: he loves the revolution. in an act without subject. within the limits that our situation sets to deliberation.520 Slavoj Žižek Dying. This reference to a ‘‘must’’ also opens up the space of manipulation. that one cannot do certain things. but hates to be a revolutionary. I precisely redefine the very coordinates of what I cannot and must do. This brings us to the Lacanian notion of act: in an act.’’ 10 This difference between must and ought also relies on temporality: we can reproach somebody for not having done what he ‘‘ought to have done. on the contrary. and ‘‘can have that belief while remaining uncertain about it. ‘‘deplorably. you must have punished him!’’). it is not only that. like when a bargaining partner or outright blackmailer says that. and still very clearly seeing the powerful merits of alternative courses. Who would not do a lot for fame? Who Would do as much for silence? 8 This is revolutionary activity performed from the stance of ‘‘subjective destitution’’: not ‘‘authentically displaying one’s position of enunciation. The falsity of this position resides in the fact that. like the ruthless Stalinist who ‘‘cannot but’’ engage in terror. for the choice of coordinates that prevent me from doing some things and impel me to do others. and in the very fact that one can determine. but Without declaring the death. Bernard Williams can again be of some help here. when he elaborates what forever separates must from ought: ‘‘Ought is related to must as best is related to only.’’ while we cannot say to someone ‘‘You must have done it’’ if he did not do it—we use the expression ‘‘You must have done it’’ to console somebody who did a thing he found distasteful (like ‘‘Do not blame yourself. and must do others. but also ‘‘in the location of those limits. we ‘‘cannot do otherwise but this’’: the character of a person is not only revealed in that he does what he must. . while the standard use of the expression ‘‘You ought to have done it’’ implies. sometimes through deliberation itself. we may add.’’ 11 And one is responsible for one’s character.’’ 9 We arrive at what we must do after a long and anxious consideration of alternatives. that you did not do it. What the immortal Martha Argerich said about her piano playing (‘‘I love piano playing. even if you loved him.

87. we need more than ever. 125. Collected Plays. 68.. 2002). 1997). . Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton: Princeton University Press.From Politics to Biopolitics . Truth and Truthfulness. 26. When you ‘‘must’’ do something. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (London: Free Press. 1009–10. even if is terrible: in Wagner’s Die Walkure. the Ought as a symbolic ideal caught in the dialectic of desire (if you ought not to do something. And this is what today. the same goes for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. ‘‘No Power to the Soviets. 3 For a clear articulation of this stance. . he ‘‘must’’ (‘‘cannot but’’) punish Brunhilde. in which the young comrade is killed by his companions with loving tenderness. his dearest child. Wotan is cornered by Fricka and he ‘‘must’’ (‘‘cannot but’’) allow the murder of Siegmund. 1996). My Own Private Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press. and Back 521 Must and ought thus relate as the Real and the Symbolic: the Real of a drive whose injunction cannot be avoided (which is why Lacan says that the status of a drive is ethical). Collected Plays: Three (London: Methuen. 8 Brecht. the anonymous killing without pieta. their social obligations. incidentally. the Bayreuth staging of which was Mueller’s last great theatrical achievement: they must.. 6 Bernard Williams. Gedichte in einem Band (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.Wagner encounters here the paradox of the ‘‘killing with pieta’’ at work from the Talmud (which calls us to dispense Justice with Love) to Brecht’s two key Lehrstuecke. although his heart bleeds for him. And. it means you have no choice but to do it. 10 Ibid. Notes 1 I owe this point to Ken Rinehard.’’ in his Cultural Semantics (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2 See Eric Santner. 5 Bertolt Brecht. . UCLA. 11 Ibid. they cannot but. In Wotan’s forced exercise of punishment. this very prohibition generates the desire to do it). 2003). 7 Bertolt Brecht. 9 Williams. the embodiment of his own innermost striving. in our time in which the abstract humanitarian rejection of violence is accompanied by its obscene double. 4 William Taubman. 1982). even if this goes against their Sollen. 126. Der Jasager and Die Massnahme. see Martin Jay. 130. 7–8. 493. indulge in their passion. 1998).

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