Our destiny is at stake

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

Julian Assange is our Antigone, for a long time kept in the position of the walking dead

Dissident Russian artist Andrei Molodkin has announced that he will lock some major works of art by Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol, Sarah Lucas, Andres Serrano and others (he acquired them legally) in a safe designed to destroy them with acid if the WikiLeaks founder , Julian Assange, die in prison. As expected, this plan was instantly rejected by a whole series of comments, dismissed as “a pathetically banal stunt for our superficial times”… Reactions like these really testify to our superficial times: they focused on the similarity of this gesture to similar ones ( from Dada to Banksy and some “ecovandalists”), while ignoring the heart of the matter: the fate of Assange.

Andrei Molodkin is not performing an act of modern art, he is trying to save a human life. Furthermore, he is not alone: ​​behind him stands a collective of artists and art owners driven by a profound realization: do we have the right to enjoy great works of art in seclusion, ignoring the horror from which they emerged? Walter Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the concept of history: “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as culture is not free from barbarism, so is the process of its transmission, in which it is passed on.”

The actions of the community of artists and collectors make this barbarity heroically visible. His act is desperate and brutal, of course, but what if this is the only way we can raise awareness of what is happening in Belmarsh prison? The real question is therefore: why is Julian Assange such a thorn in the side of the scoundrels in our political system? Because he's not a fool like most of the critical left.

In your Seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Lacan elaborates the distinction between two types of contemporary intellectuals, the fool [fool] and the scoundrel [knave]: "O fool he is an innocent, a fool, but truths come out of his mouth, which are not only tolerated, but which find their function, due to the fact that this fool He is sometimes covered with the buffoon's insignia. This happy shadow, this foolery fundamentally, in my eyes this is what constitutes the value of the left-wing intellectual. To which I will oppose the qualification of what in the same tradition provides us with a strictly contemporary term, and used in a conjugated way […], that of knave. […] Everyone knows that a certain way of presenting oneself that is part of the ideology of the right-wing intellectual is very precisely to present oneself as what one actually is, a knave, in other terms, of not backing down from the consequences of what is called realism, that is, when necessary, confessing to being a scoundrel.”

In short, the right-wing intellectual is a scoundrel, a conformist who refers to the mere existence of a given order as an argument in favor of it and mocks the left because of its “utopian” plans that necessarily lead to catastrophe, while the right-wing intellectual left is a fool, a jester who publicly displays the lie of the existing order, but in a way that suspends the performative efficiency of his speech. Today, after the fall of socialism, the scoundrel is a neoconservative free market advocate who cruelly rejects all forms of social solidarity as counterproductive sentimentality, while the fool is a postmodern cultural critic who, through his playful procedures aimed at “ subvert” the existing order, in fact serves as its complement.

A joke from the good old days of “Really Existing Socialism” perfectly illustrates the futility of fools. In 15th-century Russia, occupied by the Mongols, a farmer and his wife walk along a dusty road; a Mongol warrior on horseback stops beside them and tells the farmer that he will now rape his wife; he then adds, “But since there is a lot of dust on the floor, you must hold my testicles while I rape your wife, so they don’t get dirty!” After the Mongol finishes his work and leaves, the farmer begins to laugh and jump for joy; the surprised wife asks him, “How can you be jumping for joy when I have just been brutally raped in your presence?” The farmer replies: “But I caught him! His balls are full of dust!”

This sad joke speaks to the situation of the dissidents: they thought they were dealing serious blows to nomenklatura party, but all they did was put a little dust on the party's testicles. nomenklatura, while the nomenklatura continued raping the people... Isn't today's critical left in a similar position? Among the current names that gently dirty the balls of those in power with dust are definitely the woke of cancel culture and the Western guardians of “individual freedoms”.

Our task is to figure out how to take a step forward – our new version of Marx's thesis 11 should be: in our societies, critical leftists have so far only dusted the balls of those in power, the aim is to cut them off. outside. And nothing less than that is what Julian Assange did. In short, Julian Assange is our Antigone, for a long time kept in the position of the living dead (isolated solitary cell, very limited contacts with his family and lawyers, without conviction or even official charges, just waiting for extradition). The trap around his neck is closing gradually but, it seems, inexorably.

In the case of Julian Assange, time is on the side of the US and the UK: they can afford to wait, counting on the fact that public interest gradually wanes, particularly due to other global crises dominating our media. communication (wars in Ukraine and Gaza, global warming, the threat of AI…). What is happening to Julian Assange is, therefore, increasingly something reported on the sidelines of our mainstream media: the fact that he remains in solitary confinement for years is part of our lives...

Julian Assange should always be mentioned when we are tempted to praise our Western democratic societies, with their human rights and freedoms, or when we criticize Muslim, Chinese or Russian oppression: his fate is a reminder that our freedom is also seriously limited. Julian Assange is therefore a victim of the new apolitical neutrality: he is not banned from being mentioned, we just no longer care about him, his imprisonment continues with increasing indifference.

Some liberals criticize Julian Assange for focusing only on the liberal West and ignoring even greater injustices in Russia and China, but they miss something. First, Wikileaks also exposed many documents that testify to the horrors outside the liberal West. Yet these injustices are highly visible in our media, we read about them all the time. The problem with the West is that we tend to ignore countries with sometimes even greater injustices (just mention Saudi Arabia, which is definitely worse than Iran).

Sometimes we feel free because we ignore our lack of freedom, whereas in Russia and China people are fully aware of their lack of freedom. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and not notice the plank in yours?” (Matthew 7:3) Julian Assange taught us to pay attention to the plank in our own eyes. More precisely, Julian Assange taught us to see the hidden complicity between the beams of our eyes and the eyes of our enemy. His approach allows us to discover solidarity and parallels between opponents in the great struggles that permeate our media. For our own good, we must not allow Assange himself to fall into this darkness of invisibility.

So you think Andrei Molodkin's gesture is wrong and counterproductive? OK, but don't waste time analyzing it as an artistic gesture. Instead, look for more efficient ways to help him. In the situation we find ourselves in, no one with a clear conscience has the right to think and engage in detached aesthetic judgments – our fate is at stake.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/46TCc6V]

Translation: Paulo Cantalice for the Boitempo's blog.


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