News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Response to Zizek on Hollywood Himmlers

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Response to Zizek on Hollywood Himmlers

Slavoj Zizek has had published one of his more focused, less rambling pieces. Also characteristically, his essay analyzes popular culture in his most insightful and enlightening way. Zizek takes on the TV show, 24, a program that spins the thriller/action genre with a unique twist: a second-by-second, hour-by-hour, "real-time," story where time and the race against its running out is a matter of life and death--usually in terms of social and communal catastrophe.

You could paint the program as nothing but a way to neutralize the horror and terror of inhumanity and dehumanization by presenting it in the mask of the pretty face of blond- and tanned former Hollywood "bad boy," Kiefer Sutherland. ...

There’s a common situation faced by parents when they have to educate their children about the threat of “bad people” who want to harm them. A child’s cognitive skills and the parents’ own ability or inability to effectively communicate ethical concepts come into play. Most of these stories, no doubt, often come out sounding like a Grimm’s fairy tale about evil ogres, giants, or hobgoblins, if they even reach that level. In most cases, the warnings call up nebulous monsters whose features always parallel a child’s worst dreams and never approach verisimilitude.

Such pictures do not capture the nature of either the threat or the evil. As counselors learn, the threat has a much more innocuous, benign, if not “normal” face. It’s not the face of freddy kruger or the dawn of the dead that a child would see if they are ever faced with the threat, but the face of a favorite uncle or cousin—the Dennis Rader, (aka BTK serial Killer) dog-catchers next door of the world.

In a related way, the pictures we have of such monsters who perpetrate war crimes and similar atrocities never accurately mirror the reality. As Zizek notes, the classic study of this phenomenon is Hannah Arendt’s Eeichmann in Jerusalem. In that work Arendt formulated the now famous notion of the “banality of evil.” This notion denotes the very phenomenon experienced by parents described above: evil comes in the form of a smiling, efficient, effective public servant whose obsequious nature makes the trains run on time. This human type goes home, kisses the wife, tucks the kids in at night after reading them fairy tales, and sleeps peacefully after a day spent arranging the transport and delivery of thousands of human beings to factories designed to streamline their extermination.

Fortunately, Zizek does not stop here. In the world of ideas, as in the world of publicity, the power of words lose their existential depth and authenticity. After repeated use ad nauseam, Arendt’s investigation threatens to become something of a cliché itself. It’s become a commonplace whose over-use betrays its terror. Some might ascribe this emptying of meaning to the processes generated by nihilism. That is, as noted by many others, a characteristic of our age is the way that words and concepts quickly lose their meaning in existential dimensions by over-use, as well as the vacuity of experience itself within modern culture.

Zizek is out to point up something else rather than the rather trite observation that Hollywood and TV glamorize evil. There’s a secret here that needs to be cracked open, from Zizek’s stand-point. For him the question becomes something about why the torture is brought out into the open in the first place.

Some argue that at least the US is now more open and less hypocritical about its behaviour towards terrorist suspects. To this, one should reply: "If US representatives mean only this, why are they telling us? Why don't they silently go on doing it, as they did it until now?" What is proper to human speech is the gap between the enunciated content and its act of enunciation. Imagine a couple who have a tacit agreement that they can have discreet extramarital affairs; if, all of a sudden, the husband openly tells his wife about an affair, she would have good reason to wonder why he was telling her. The act of publicly revealing something is never neutral; it affects the reported content itself.

The same goes for the US's recent admission that it is using torture. When we hear people such as Dick Cheney making statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask ourselves why he has decided to make a public statement about it. The question to be raised is: what is there in this statement that made the speaker decide to enunciate it? This is 24's real problem: not the content itself but the fact that we are being told openly about it. And that is a sad indication of a deep change in our ethical and political standards. [my emphasis]
This is a somewhat cryptic ending. In some of his other essays, Zizek has hinted at something like a sea-change in western sensibilities regarding ethics. It is this that I think he is pointing towards, albeit somewhat mysteriously.

Like Kierkegaard more than 150 years ago, Zizek has seen an abyss that few in the west are willing or prepared to face. While fundamentalists of all sorts and ethicists of all brands bemoan the lack of ethics in public, they all agree that they have the answer to the ethical void. Whether it’s a return to a minimalist reading of sacred scripture or it pays obeisance at the altar of Reason, each of these standpoints assumes that humans can still perceive what it means to be or are capable of being ethical.

Zizek points up a disturbing and much more terrifying reality that centers itself within the ash-filled urn of Arendt’s banality and raises the spectre of a world that will not and cannot recognize that an ethical void actually exists, since the capability of being ethical simply does not exist anymore.

No comments: