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The Universal Exception

The Universal Exception
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Following 11 September, rightist commentators like George Will immediately proclaimed the end of America’s ‘holiday from history’ – the impact of reality shattering the isolated tower of liberal tolerance and the cultural studies focus on textuality. Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world … But whom to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the correct target, bringing us full satisfaction. The ridiculousness of America retaliating against Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the so-called ‘only remaining superpower’ destroys one of the world’s poorest countries, in which peasants barely survive on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate case of an impotent passage à I’acte? Afghanistan is otherwise an ideal target: a country already reduced to rubble, with no infrastructure, repeatedly destroyed by war over the last two decades … one cannot avoid the conclusion that the choice of Afghanistan was also determined by economic considerations: is it not the best procedure to act out one’s anger at a country for whom no one cares and where there is nothing to destroy? Unfortunately, the choice of Afghanistan recalls the anecdote about the madman who searches for a lost key beneath a street light when asked why he is searching there when he lost the key in a dark corner, he answers: ‘But it is easier to search under a strong light!’ Is not the ultimate irony that the whole of Kabul already looks like downtown Manhattan after 11 September?

To succumb to the urge to act now means precisely to avoid confronting the true dimension of what occurred on 11 September – it represents an act whose true aim is to lull us into the secure conviction that nothing has really changed. The real long-term threat is the prospect of further acts of mass terror in comparison to which the memory of the WTC collapse will pale, acts less spectacular, but much more horrifying. What about bacteriological warfare, the use of lethal gas, the prospect of DNA terrorism (the development of poisons that will only affect people who share a determinate gene)? In contrast to Marx who relied on the notion of fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscates its social mediation, one should assert that fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is ‘dematerialized’, turned into a fluid, ‘immaterial’, virtual entity; money fetishism will culminate with its passage to electronic form, when the last traces of its materiality disappear – it is only at this stage that it will assume the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you $1,000, and no matter how many material notes I burn, I will still owe you $1,000; the debt is inscribed somewhere in virtual digital space. Does the same not hold for warfare? Far from pointing towards the nature of warfare in the twenty-first century, the collapse of the WTC towers was rather the last spectacular cry of twentieth-century warfare. What awaits us is something far more uncanny: the spectre of an ‘immaterial war in which the attack is invisible – viruses, poisons that can be both everywhere and nowhere. At the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, no big explosions, and yet the known universe begins to collapse, life itself disintegrates. We are entering a new era of paranoiac warfare in which the greatest task will be to identify the enemy and its weapons. Instead of a hasty passage à l’acte, one should confront these difficult questions: What will ‘war’ mean in the twenty-first century? Who will ‘they’ be, if they are, clearly, neither states nor criminal gangs? One cannot resist the temptation to recall here the Freudian opposition of public Law and its obscene superego double: along the same lines, are ‘international terrorist organizations’ not the obscene double of large multinational corporations – the ultimate rhizomatic machine, all-present, and yet with no clear territorial base? Are they not the form in which nationalist and/or religious ‘fundamentalism’ accommodated itself to global capitalism? Do they not embody the ultimate contradiction, with their particular/exclusive content and their global dynamic functioning?

[Extract from [amazon text=The Universal Exception&asin=0826495303], 2006, pp. 275-277. Get it from [amazon text=Amazon&asin=0826495303].]

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. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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