The Universal Exception

The Universal Exception
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Recall the old joke about a man suspected of smuggling: every day for twenty years a man pushed a wheelbarrow full of sand across the border-crossing. The customs inspector would dig through the sand but never discovered any illegal goods. He nevertheless remained convinced that he was dealing with a smuggler. On the last day before his retirement, the inspector asked the smuggler what he had been smuggling all these years and how he did it. The man replied, of course, that he had been smuggling wheelbarrows. Does the same not hold for the Paris riots? These well-meaning sociologists were searching for the meaning behind the violence, all the while missing the obvious point – i.e., that, as Marshall McLuhan would have put it, the medium itself is the message: we are dealing with a case of what Roman Jakobson called ‘phatic communication’, in which the meaning of the act is the act of communication as such, the establishment of a link, the rendering visible of the speaker. At this point, one is even tempted to speculate on the appeal that fascism might have had for these protesters: one should not forget that the first pacifying gesture made by Hitler (indeed, by fascism generally) was to guarantee each social group that their specific place within the social edifice, and thus their dignity, would be recognized, that they should be proud of their contribution to the smooth functioning of the social whole, and in this way would counteract the threat of those who experience themselves as ‘part of no-part’. This, perhaps, was the hidden meaning of Chirac’s assertion that the crisis was effectively a ‘crisis of meaning [une crise du sens]’. (I am not of course, implying that the riots were ‘proto-fascist’: the point is just that fascism is ultimately always a reaction to a potential emancipatory event, a ‘failed revolution’.


Apropos of commodity fetishism, Marx himself uses the term ‘objectively-necessary appearance’. So, when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist’s reproach should not be, ‘The commodity may seem to you a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people’; but rather, ‘You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you – in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers …’ This difference between the two appearances (the way things really appear to us versus the way they appear to appear to us) is linked to the structure of the well-known Freudian joke about a Jew who complains to his friend, ‘Why are you telling me you are going to Lemberg when you are really going to Lemberg?’: say, in the case of commodity fetishism, when I immediately perceive money as just a knot of social relations, not any kind of magic object, and I only treat it like a fetish in my practice, so that the site of fetishism is my actual social practice, I could effectively be reproached with: ‘Why are you saying that money is just a knot of social relations, when money really is just a knot of social relations?’ Jean Laplanche wrote about the hysteric’s ‘primordial lie’ which articulates the original fantasy: ‘The term proton pseudos aims at something different from a subjective lie; it renders a kind of passage from the subjective to the founding, even, one could say, to the transcendental; in any case, a kind of objective lie, inscribed into the facts.’ Is this not also the status of Marxian commodity fetishism – not simply a subjective illusion, but an ‘objective’ illusion, an illusion inscribed into facts (social reality) themselves?


Dupuy proposes a convincing critique of John Rawls’ theory of justice: in the Rawlsian model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they also assist those at the bottom of the social ladder, and insofar as they are based not on inherited hierarchies but on natural inequalities which are considered contingent, not meritorious. What Rawls fails to observe is the way that such a society would create the conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of ressentiment: in such a society, I would know that my lower social status is fully ‘justified’, and would thus be deprived of the ability to excuse my failures as the result of social injustice. Rawls proposes the terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized by natural properties, thereby missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is given a choice by a benevolent witch: she will either give him one cow and his neighbour two cows, or take from him one cow and from his neighbour two cows – the peasant immediately chooses the second option. (In a more morbid version, the witch tells him: ‘I will do to you whatever you wish, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbour twice!’ The peasant, with a cunning smile, tells her, ‘Take one of my eyes!’.) It is no wonder that even today’s conservatives are ready to endorse Rawls’ notion of justice: on 8 November 2005, David Cameron, the newly elected leader of the British Tories, signalled his intention to turn the Conservative Party into a defender of the underprivileged, declaring that, ‘I think the test of all our policies should be: what does it do for the people who have the least, the people on the bottom rung of the ladder?’

As Friedrich Hayek observed, it is much easier to accept inequalities if one can claim that they result from a blind, impersonal force. The good thing about the ‘irrationality’ of market success or failure within capitalism (recall Marx’s comparison between the inscrutable market dynamics and the ancient conception of Fate) is that it allows me to perceive my failure (or success) as undeserved, and thus contingent. The fact that capitalism is not ‘just’ is thus a key feature that makes it palatable to the majority of people – I can accept my failure much more easily if I know that it is not due to my inferior qualities but to chance.

[Extract from The Universal Exception, 2006, pp. 306, 340 & 313-314. Get it from Amazon.]

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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