Excerpt from my Review of Slavoj Zizek’s “Trouble in Paradise”

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on April 13, 2015

Originally published at The Oxonian Review

This drawing of simple binaries on unqualified distinctions of oppressor and oppressed is precisely what afflicts the Left political spectrum today, especially in Anglophone countries. Of course, the right-wing discourse that every Muslim is a potential terrorist is downright racist. But what does one call the equally problematic response of the multicultural left that any criticism of Islam, or the cultural practices of Muslim communities, is tantamount to Islamophobia? If one can excuse away the Charlie Hebdo massacre by reference to the brutality of French colonialism, then one can also excuse Nazism by reference to the brutal political and economic stipulations laid on Germany post-World War I. There is a monopolization of the discourse on Islam by Islamists and liberal Muslims which is being actively, or passively, assisted by the Western multicultural Left at the cost of those within the so-called “Muslim world” who care little for the Islamic religion, and the real or imagined offences against it, and who are instead working towards radical political struggle and social reform within their communities. This is the “Third” that is being ignored. An honourable exception, Žižek is miles ahead of his leftist peers in his insistence that Islamism is not a legitimate response to, but rather an inherent part of, global capitalism–an illegitimate child.


Ferguson: Taking the fight beyond identity politics

Posted in International by Karthick RM on April 13, 2015

Originally published on The European magazine

It has been reported that two police officers were shot at Ferguson on Thursday, hours after the city’s police chief resigned in the wake of an inquiry into the excesses that his department committed under his reign. This assault follows on the heels of another fatal attack on two NYPD police officers in December by a young Black man who claimed to be taking revenge for police brutalities in Ferguson and elsewhere. Ironically, the cops whom he murdered also happened to be “people of color”. Can these incidents, the general mood of public unrest in Ferguson, be read as acts of “divine violence”?

Disease of the old world order

Slavoj Zizek evokes Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” to defend this argument. Without condoning or condemning, he rightly observes that such outbursts “with no concrete programmatic demands” are sustained “by just a vague call for justice.” Indeed, Benjamin’s thesis is that “If mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying”. But this is only a part of it. Benjamin further adds, “if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.” Did the reactive violence by the oppressed in Ferguson achieve, or even aim at any of this? Sadly, no. Why is this? The “irrational outbursts” such as Ferguson are not symptoms of a new world order – they are symptoms of the disease of the old world order.

The advocacy of indiscriminate violence to combat White racist power centers is nothing new. In the past, Black activists like Eldridge Cleaver advocated rape of White women as a form of resistance to White racism – though he later expressed regret for such ideas. Life came full circle when he eventually joined the Republican Party and became a Christian conservative. What does this say? The reality is that the American system is more than capable of defending itself against such violent excesses by its minorities. If anything, it would prefer the pampering of such particularist minority identity politics because the postmodern logic of global capitalism requires the proliferations of multiple minority identities. This impotent violence of particularist identity politics, fueled only by anti-Whiteressentiment, creates more boundaries and comes nowhere closer to destroying them, which alone would be the real act of divine violence. So the White racists who are phobic about the “brutal Blacks” and the multicultural left who, to overcome a misplaced sense of guilt, celebrate “Black resistance by any means necessary” are actually conforming to the logic of the same system.

Overcoming black separatism

Frantz Fanon was precisely talking about this when he wrote in his “Black Skin, White Masks” that those who adore the Black person are as pathological as those who hate him. His message is crucial – the practice of attributing an immutable identity to an exotic Other and preaching phobia against it, as the racists are wont to do, or preaching a patronizing tolerance for it, as multiculturalists are wont to do, damages the possibility of an universalist political project. In fact, more than Black nationalists in America, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who took this message to heart, when he argued it was necessary to overcome Black separatism and fight on a universalist plank for all the oppressed in the country.

Where does this place those on the radical left? Of course, we have to, without any hesitation, acknowledge that the police system in several parts of America is totally racist. But at the same time, we should not slip into the quite problematic multiculturalist position of endorsing everything that goes by the name of Black/minority identity politics. One can acknowledge that a section of the population has been systematically marginalized, convey solidarity with their struggles, while also remaining critical of reactionary cultural and political tendencies within those minority communities. We can learn a few lessons here from VI Lenin who, while being extremely sensitive to the precarious position of the Jews in Russia, was also boldly critical of isolationist Jewish Bundist politics. To make an excuse that reactionary politics of minority communities have to be tolerated just because “they are different from us” is after all another form of racism.

Defending the egalitarian aspects of Western society

What is needed is, as Zizek suggests elsewhere, a “radical emancipatory Third” that rejects both an identity politics based on anti-Western ressentiment and a shallow liberal multiculturalist tolerance. It is this Third alone that can defend the egalitarian aspects of Western society. This might take the form of a reinvented Jacobinism or a heretical Leninism, but the urgent need is to imagine such a politics of universalism, one that breaks boundaries, expiates both guilt and ressentiment, strikes potently, and is lethal even without spilling blood.

Only this force which the current system cannot accommodate and liberals cannot imagine can bring forth the real event of divine violence.

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J’accuse: Charlie Hebdo and the Rank Stupidity of the Infantile Left

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on January 20, 2015

Originally published on Huffington Post

In the wake of the brutal murders at the office of the French satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo, did you come across any article which read something like the following?

‘While the Hebdo murders are sad (add few token lines of phony sympathy) France has killed many people during colonialism. And it has a history of white racism. Plus, it is also engaged in neo-colonial endeavors. Likewise, Charlie Hebdo is Islamophobic (give few examples). The murderers are just isolated madmen and do not have an ideology. etc etc.’

Well done! You’ve just had a generous dose of infantile leftism! Criticism is reserved only for the West and Israel. Only the Whites and Jews have it in them to be the super-villains of the world. The rest are just innocent suffering victims. And yes, the ‘resistance’ of these ‘victims’ – whatever form it might come in – ought not be criticized. Ironically, this sort of Manichean thinking, that of the bad West vs the poor Rest, is precisely the mirror-image of the Bush doctrine of “either you are with us or against us”.

Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek made an interesting comment about such trends among the left: “For the multiculturalist, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are prohibited, Italians and Irish get a little respect, blacks are good, native Americans are even better. The further away we go, the more they deserve respect. This is a kind of inverted, patronizing respect that puts everyone at a distance.”

The irrational hatred for Whites and Jews (including those from the working class) apart, this is precisely the kind of patronizing respect that the infantile left in Western countries shows towards Islamism. In reality, this left is much like the right, in that it secretly accepts that Muslims are incapable of radical social reform, and hence, becomes a patron of Islamist identity politics. And the bogey it invents to hide its own failures and to shut down legitimate criticisms of Islamism is that of Islamophobia. And the ‘name-and-shame’ campaign this coterie launches against critics – not to mention the real, existential threat posed by Islamic fanatic groups – create a climate where there is self-censorship that writers, intellectuals and comedians impose on themselves. The implicit message seems to be this: criticize Islam, and you are an Islamophobe. Should you be killed, you probably deserved it.

Isn’t that what is also transpiring in Hebdo attack case? Though the magazine was clearly an equal-opportunity offender some on the left have used even this tragic circumstance to paint the institution as ‘Islamophobic’.

I did come across a few nauseating articles but this one by Richard Seymour on a magazine that goes by the name “Jacobin” takes the cake. Let alone a solidarity with the victims – which the writer believes to be “platitudinous” – there is not even a word of condemnation of the terrorists (again, a term which the writer opposes to categorize the killers) who executed this barbaric attack. Instead there is a banal sermon on the possible dangers of Islamophobia, a totally irrelevant anecdote about Thatcher coupled with an inappropriate comparison with the IRA, and accusations at Charlie Hebdo which make it sound as though the magazine invited the attack.

It is precisely this sort of irresponsible justifications of acts of blind terrorism that shrink the already limited political space for progressive activists, representatives of the working class and oppressed nations. And no less a person than Lenin condemned these sort of acts. Seymour asks his readers to check up on Said’s Orientalism (and it is not a wonder that he is disapproving of Zizek). But maybe he should re-read – and try to understand – what Lenin meant when he called terrorist-glorification tendencies an ‘infantile disorder’.

A true leftist would realize that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is not merely an attack on a liberal freedom of press – it is an attack of a core Marxist value, namely, the ethical imperative to critically examine every ideology under the sun, and Islam is no special exception. For a leftist to ignore that is imbecility at its worst.

As far Islamist terrorism goes, maybe the Left should remember what Robespierre, the patriarch of modern day revolutionaries, said – “To punish the oppressors of humanity is benevolence; to be benevolent to them is barbarism.” This, and this alone, is real Jacobinism.This, and this alone, is real Jacobinism.

Islamophilia Cannot Be an Effective Answer to Islamophobia

Posted in International by Karthick RM on December 24, 2014

Originally published on Huffington Post

The recent siege by an Islamist in Sydney has raised all too familiar debates about Islamophobia. The general right-wing argument, of course, is that such acts of terrorism are justified by a hard-core minority of Muslims and that downplaying the role of Islam is potentially harmful. On the other hand, the general liberal-left argument is that expecting all Muslims to condemn such acts is bigoted because a whole community cannot be held accountable for the actions of a few ‘deranged lunatics’.

Central to both arguments is an unstated belief that the Islamic identity is central to all Muslims, and while the former despises it, the latter preaches a patronising tolerance of the same. And both are wrong.

We have to look at Islamophobia as the tendency to blame Muslims as a whole, without any differentiation of nation, culture, class, gender, and political orientation for terrorist acts committed by Islamists.

Likewise, we have to look at Islamophilia as the tendency to exonerate Islam as an ideology from the crimes that are committed in its name, as the belief that the Muslim identity is good in itself and is central to an adherent of the faith.

Reality, if anything, shows the contrary. Proponents of the two sides are unlikely to remember that the first state to declare itself officially atheist in the world happened to be a predominantly ‘Muslim’ country – socialist Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, the state banned religion and religious preaching, shut down mosques, and tried to achieve gender parity in all services. In practice, the ‘Muslim’ Hoxha was the most rabid Islamophobe of the previous century. Incidentally, it was precisely those western governments – who are now accused of harbouring Islamophobia – who railed against Hoxha for curbing religious freedom for Muslims.

Several other examples could be given. The Indonesian Communist Party led insurgency, the Kurdish movement in the middle-east, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (Turkey), the Communist Party of Iran – all militantly secular movements led by ‘Muslims’ – have faced brutal repression from variants of Islamism. It would be a brutal illogic to say that the murder of thousands of individuals from these movements had nothing to do with the Islamic ideology that the states they challenged upheld.

Why is this important? Drawing parallels from other cases, can we say that the Inquisition’s slaughter of tens of thousands of heretics at the stake was just an act committed by a few ‘deranged lunatics’ and that the ideology of the Church had no role to play in it? Can we say that the discrimination against Dalits, the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy, owes to a few bad individuals and is not a structural problem in Hinduism? Can we say that war crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamils were just acts of bad soldiers and they can be divorced from the genocidal intent of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?

Similarly, we cannot excuse the Islamic ideology from the terrorism and violence that is committed in its name. There is a lot in political Islam that justifies violence against non-Muslims, sexism and terroristic acts and those Muslims who have been fighting it for long have written the best testimonials. For liberals in the West to ignore this and to engage in downright immature acts, like wearing a hijab to convey solidarity with Muslim women, is tantamount to mocking those progressives in Muslim communities who resist the cultural diktats of political Islam.

A more critical approach to political Islam is needed. Commenting on the Rotherhamchild abuse scandal, which saw the sexual abuse of over a thousand white, mostly working class, children by men of Pakistani-Muslim origin, Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that raising questions about inherent sexism and violence in these communities is neither racist nor Islamophobic. Rather, it is this questioning alone that can guarantee an authentic co-existence.

Liberals and leftists in the West are right to condemn the bigotry of the majority community, but the fundamentalism of the minority community cannot be spared from criticism. If those identifying as left and liberal fail to criticise the dangerous trends of Islamism, the right will step up for the task. That is a future no one wants and political correctness can do little to fight it. Maybe one can start by expressing critical solidarity with those progressive movements from within the Muslim communities that are willing to think beyond narrow religious identities and are willing to challenge the bigotries in Islamic ideology.

Pirapaharan at Sixty: The Meaning of the Man

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on December 8, 2014

Originally published on Sangam

Is Pirapaharan dead?

Ten years back, TamilNet senior editor and military analyst Taraki Sivaram wrote a brilliant piece on the political legacy of Pirapaharan at fifty.  Come 26 November this year, the founder-leader of the LTTE and one of the most brilliant military minds of South Asia will turn sixty.  Quite a lot has been said, by both admirers and adversaries, about the life of the man.  But what is his meaning?

It is impossible to understand Pirapaharan unless one understands the interrelated essences of Sangam poetry – love and war – and its influence on the Tamil military tradition.  The ethics of Tamil akam poetry, that of unconditional love towards the object of concern influences the ethics of the puram poetry, which calls for unconditional fidelity to the king and the kingdom.  However, even this unconditionality carries within it a condition that reinforces the unconditionality.  For instance, the woman of virtue (Tamil progressives will, and with ample justification, criticize this, but let us leave discussions about gender problems in epic poetry for another day) is the object of love because she is a woman of virtue, the love has a platonic character because of the virtuous nature of the object.  Likewise, the soldier’s fidelity to the king is because the king is loyal to the kingdom, and the king’s loyalty to the kingdom commands the soldier’s fidelity.  The object of love and the object of fidelity function as cornerstones in a discursive network, without which the network would collapse.  In other words, they provide meaning to the meaning of things.

In a sense that is Pirapaharan.  At sixty, in what some call the ‘post-conflict era’, the symbolism of Pirapaharan speaks that Tamil nationalism is alive and kicking.   The 5 lakh students who got out on the street in Tamil Nadu in early 2013, and thousands of protestors in the diaspora who challenged the injustice of the international community carried his image.  These activists believe that this image signifies Tamil nationalist resistance to oppression.  But isn’t this ‘idol worship’ problematic?

Commenting on the veneration of revolutionary leaders, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle writes “‘Hero-worship’ becomes a fact inexpressibly precious; the most solacing fact one sees in the world at present.  There is an everlasting hope in it for the management of the world.  Had all traditions, arrangements, creeds, societies that men ever instituted, sunk away, this would remain.  The certainty of Heroes being sent us; our faculty, our necessity, to reverence Heroes when sent: it shines like a polestar through smoke-clouds, dust-clouds, and all manner of downrushing and conflagration.”  An oxymoronic, mostly moronic, ‘liberal left’ discredits the idea of leadership.  No less a person than Lenin believed that a revolution required revolutionary leaders who stuck to their principles, and were willing to make decisions that the ordinary could not make.  This belief is reinstated by contemporary philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, who also argue that a true revolutionary leader represents a Universal over and beyond narrow particulars.

While Lilliputian minds would fix a region, religion or caste label to Pirapaharan, the real ideological significance of Pirapaharan is that he transcends these narrow particularities and serves as a Universal referent for Tamil nationalists.  Not only is Pirapaharan now a symbol of Eelam Tamil nationalism, he has also transfigured as a symbol of Tamil civilizational consciousness.  What else explains the tens of thousands of youth in Tamil Nadu considering an Eelam Tamil leader as their own Tamil hero who provided a promise of Tamil renaissance?

But every great uniter is also a divider.  As Pirapaharan becomes the symbolic standard that unites patriots, he is also the standard that separates traitors.  The Pirapaharan school of thought, which is the radical extension of the thoughts of V. Navaratnam and SJV Chelvanayagam, as much as it is a standard for evaluating patriotism, also becomes the scale by which treason is judged.  To be a true Christian, it is imperative to believe in the struggle between Good and Evil, not just external Evil, but also the Evil that is internal.  Likewise, to be a Tamil nationalist in the footsteps of Pirapaharan means not just an opposition to the Sinhala state and its allies, but also traitors who undermine the struggle from within.  And for that, we need to keep reminding ourselves what Pirapaharan means, what is the idea of Pirapaharan.

Coming back to the original question – Is Pirapaharan dead?  This might confuse some people, but I would say that Pirapaharan the individual died when he founded the LTTE. Ever since, what has existed is an idea.  An idea that means sovereign Tamil Eelam; the creation of a society that is based on universal principles of justice and equality; a society without regionalism, communalism, sexism or casteism; a society where the love of heroic passions replaces the lust for trivial sentiments; a society without particularist chauvinism or cheap liberal cosmopolitanism; the creation of a people who resonate the glories of the Tamil past purging it of all darkness and enriching it with the emancipatory narrative of a universal future; the idea that the impossible can be made possible by the Will to Freedom.

And ideas, like heroes, are immortal.

Finally, when people ask questions like “Will Pirapaharan come back,” I remember a conversation I had with a Jesuit in Chennai.  I asked him “Do you really believe in the Second Coming of Christ?”  He replied nonchalantly, “I do not know if he will come or not. But if he does, I want to be sure that I have remained a true Christian, that I have done all in my power to serve the humanity he so loved so that he will be pleased on arrival.”  This is precisely the spirit that Tamil nationalists must adopt now.

Slavoj Zizek – The Dark Conscience of the 21st Century?

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on September 23, 2013

Originally published on Countercurrents

A conversation with a particularly perceptive liberal friend a few days back turned to the subject of ‘offensive’ jokes and whether the proponents of free speech should really grant the freedom to offend. Ever the politically incorrect, I defended it, citing Zizek. She quickly responded that everyone tolerated Zizek because they knew that he was crazy. After a pause, I asked her “What if Zizek understands the way everyone, the world, functions and that drove him crazy?”

(I had in mind the Joker from Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke who proclaims to the Batman “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!”)

Now this is certainly not the first time someone has commented on the Slovenian’s sanity. Intellectual pop star, celebrity, left-fascist, Stalinist, ‘Elvis Presley of Marxism’ are some of the terms used to describe him. Those familiar with his preface to the selected works of Robespierre in Virtue and Terror, his In Defense of Lost Causes, and even better, or worse if you prefer it, his monumental work on Hegel Less than Nothing, will have an idea why he is called the “most dangerous philosopher in the world”.

The last philosopher to earn such accolades, criticism, praise and invectives would be Jean-Paul Sartre. Now, Sartre was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order in 1948 prohibiting the reading of any of his works. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists, liberals, structuralists, the initial post-modernists, and many others loathed him. Sartre’s biographer John Gerassi called him “the hated conscience of his century”.

If there is one thing that the several Sartre scholars agree upon it is that his philosophy was a “philosophy of action”. Doesn’t the very idea of conscience presuppose an imperative to act ethically? But then, the temptation to act is precisely what Zizek has been campaigning against. He calls on us to do nothing, step back, and think. Such an opinion would have been anathema to Sartre, who threw his weight behind every cause of the oppressed – and everyone claiming to fight on behalf of the oppressed – that came to his notice.

Yet, towards the end of his eventful life, Sartre admits in an interview to Benny Levy, that while he still believed in the possibility of hope, “I hold to the idea that a man’s life manifests itself as a failure: he doesn’t succeed in what he tries to do. He doesn’t even succeed in thinking what he wants to think, or in feeling what he wants to feel.” But what if the failure of man’s life is that he does what he tries to do, feels what he wants to feel, and thinks what he wants to think BUT refuses to think in any other way for fear of wanting to take responsibility for thinking that way? Isn’t this precisely the problem that Zizek has been systematically hammering at, this willingness to feel and act without contemplation? You think that you think poverty is bad, you choose to buy a coffee from some brand that will send some pennies to a starving kid in Africa, and you feel a sense of elation over having played Good Samaritan. As Peter Verkhovensky, a fascinating nihilist character in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed observes, there is always something fundamentally depraved about charity.

With Zizek, there is no happy grand solution. No confirmation that a utopia of some sort will be possible. No comforting words for the marginalized and the suffering. No feel-good concepts on which the politically correct can fall back on. Heck, in Zizek-speak, the antonym of love is not hate, but tolerance! He is that dark, unforgiving voice that speaks to us on the left, that laughs at our desire to prescribe solutions to problems that we have no clue about, our inability to see the big picture, and our trivial happiness over disorganized outbursts of popular sentiments. Why else would he crack the rape joke about the Mongol warrior and the Russian couple? Only the best comedians awaken us to reality as it really is. Usually, it is black comedy.

To take one from The Dark Knight, Sartre was the hated conscience the 20 th Century needed. Zizek is the dark conscience that the 21 st century deserves. But radicals in the later part of this century will require visiting both personalities once the academic posturing of the politically correct and the banal optimisms of the ‘activist left’ come crashing down eventually.

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Imagining a Superman of the Left

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on June 21, 2013

“Is there a place, in a disoriented world, for a new style of heroism?”
-Alain Badiou

So this is what a culturalist reading of Man of Steel would be like: Ah, the alien, initially feared by the Americans, eventually gets around to loving our way of life, saving our world as we know it, and we accepting and tolerating his difference. The integration into the American dream. Likewise, the Christian symbolism throughout the movie was too obvious to miss. In that one scene, where after a conversation with the image of his father in that spaceship thingy, Superman falls back to the earth cutting a Christ-on-the-cross like image, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to that biblical verse from John 3:16, considered by many to be the essence of Christian theology, “For god so loved the world that he gave his only son and those who believe in him shall not perish but have life eternal.” So there it is, Zack Snyder’s good movie for liberal Christian, multiculturalist consciences.

But what if Superman was an adherent of biblical radicalism? An incarnation of that ‘other’ Jesus Christ, passionately promoted by Slavoj Zizek, the radical who tells his followers that he arrived on earth not to promote peace but to generate upheavals? Or a figure who showed a big intolerant middle-finger to our old way of life and was hell-bent on establishing universal justice and equality even at the cost of sacrificing narrow particularities, political correctness and pluralisms? Simply put, could we imagine a Superman of the Left?

Communist Superman

Communist Superman in Mark Millar’s ‘Red Son’

One can already anticipate what the liberals would say to the idea of a communist Superman – “you already had one. His name was Stalin!” (Doesn’t ‘Stalin’ itself roughly mean ‘Man of Steel’?) Indeed, the idea of communist Superman, when explored by Mark Millar in the DC Elseworlds comic book series titled ‘Red Son’ released in 2003, portrayed him as an accomplice of Stalin and as a crypto-Stalinist. This Superman enforces a communist revolution worldwide against US interests, overrides notions of liberal democracy and ‘free choice’ and quite literally, rules with a steel fist. He is eventually overthrown by American Lex Luthor, who convinces the indestructible man of the inherent falsity of his faith, and heralds an age of global capitalist utopia. It is interesting to note that while it was possible to imagine Superman as a communist superhero, even in an alternate comic universe it has been impossible to think of Batman on the same lines. In ‘Red Son’, Batman plays the role of an anti-revolutionary saboteur, something on the lines of the Contras in Nicaragua.

Why is this? Batman is inherently systemic, a product of and the defender of an inherently problematic system, a Manichean who almost never considers the nuances of what he holds to be as ‘true’. Just like the global hegemons who use rational means for irrational and unattainable ends, Batman too thinks that pumping the profits of his daytime business into the demands of his night-time activity will make his beloved city a better place. A hooded vigilante who cleans up undesirables of the system – this is the picture perfect image of the death squads that operate in several conflict zones in Latin America and South Asia. That dark part of the system which the system knows is there, which the system recognizes as necessary but whose real nature it refuses to acknowledge for fear of the consequences. Fetishist disavowal anyone?

Superman can be read differently. Of course, the ‘mainstream’ portrayal of the guy is problematic. But is a Man of Steel problematic as such? In a subversive (and, in my opinion, rather unfairly criticized) reading of Zack Snyder’s 300, Zizek in his short essay “The True Hollywood Left” reads a foundation for modern egalitarian principles in the “emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline”. I think Zizek’s emphasis, and this his critics failed to acknowledge, was not so much on what the Spartan ideal historically was, but on what the Spartan ideal can become. A similar subversive reading and appropriation can be made of Superman too.

Unlike a Batman, a Superman is not a product of the system. He is trans-systemic, or at least has the potential to be so. A Superman’s superhuman strength, endurance and penetrative vision needn’t be seen as physical attributes alone. It very well can be the mental attributes of the Nietzschean Übermensch. (The abuse of Nietzsche’s concept by fascists has been drilled enough by several scholars. I needn’t elaborate that here.) In my reading, Nietzsche’s Übermensch ideal was the one who could be faithful to the following exhortation in The Antichrist:

“Truth has had to be fought for every step of the way, almost everything else dear to our hearts, on which our love and our trust in life depend, has had to be sacrificed to it. Greatness of soul is needed for it: the service of truth is the hardest service. For what does it mean to be honest in intellectual things? That one is stern towards one’s heart, that one despises ‘fine feelings’, that one makes every Yes and No a question of conscience!”

Needless to say, these demands require a ‘superhuman strength, endurance and penetrative vision’ and a trans-systemic perspective that critically observes not only the flaws in the existing system, but also the flaws in the solutions that is thrown about as a panacea to the system. This virtue cannot be over-emphasised at this moment when the Left gets orgasmic at any mass gathering which it perceives to be anti-system, be it the Arab Spring, the OWS, or the recent Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey. This will sound cynical, but taking from Lenin who warned his fellow communists against conferring a divine status to the revolution by only referring to it with the capital letter R, we need to warn ourselves today against referring to ‘people’ with capital P or ‘humanity’ with capital H. The war has never been between the 1% oppressors in the ruling class and the rest 99%. It has been and will continue to be, if you take as valid the western military doctrine that war is the clash of wills of commanders, between the 1% oppressors and the 0.1% of the theoretically and politically sound from the oppressed over who gets to command the remainder. Hence, the Superman of the Left is not the one who asks in the face of a people’s outburst ‘What now?’ – He asks ‘What tomorrow?’

Back to Badiou, who defines ‘heroism’ in his evocative essay “The Figure of the Soldier” as “the luminous experience, in a concrete situation, of something that assumes its humanity beyond the natural limits of the human animal.” We have to transgress Marx who decried the importance given to Heroes in History and take the side of Hegel and Nietzsche instead. Lest I be accused of heresy by my orthodox Marxist friends, let me add here that even Mao approved of ‘healthy personality cults’. Our ideal of Hero needs to be something more if we are to answer the question raised by Badiou mentioned earlier.

Heroism can be that moment where a people decide that ‘enough is enough and the old way is not liveable anymore’ and act in assorted fashions to achieve their humanity transcending the limits placed by the situation they are in. But Heroes are those who capture this moment, use this sentiment to ensure that any return to the old way is absolutely untenable, making the necessary sacrifice of plurality for a fighting collectivity, particularity of factions for universality of justice, political correctness for political truth. This Hero, humanely inhuman, is the ‘virtuous terrorist’ and his political ancestry can be traced to the Jacobins. This is the Hero, the Superman ideal, which the left desperately needs to imagine at the current conjuncture.

The regime of repression in Turkey, racist fury in ethno-chauvinist states in South Asia, strengthening of economic models of Asian countries that have capitalism without liberalism, the Syrian crisis exacerbated by American intervention, turmoil in African countries seem far away nightmares. The European left, while snickering over the economic crisis in the West, still fails to come up with a viable – more than that, an inspiring alternative to the current system. In that European country where the pinch was felt the most, the Right capitalized where the Left failed. And thus you have the fascist Golden Dawn that seems to be winning support and popularity day by day not just in Greece, but in other countries as well.

There is nothing essentially fascist about Heroes and heroism, and the Hero ideal cannot be abandoned to liberals or fascists. The Left needs its Men and Women of Steel.

If they don’t exist, they should be invented.

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The Dark Knight Rises a Fascist?

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 21, 2012


A few weeks back, I watched the BBC documentary on ‘Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution’. True to classic British Liberalism, the documentary presented the image of the main protagonist of one of the world altering events in the history of the modern world as a delusional paranoid who would sacrifice thousands of lives for his ideal. While the Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek provided a single line of defence to the man, whom it wouldn’t be an excess to call the ideological patriarch of modern revolutionaries, the structuring of the documentary as such was tilted towards British historian Simon Schama, who was portraying an image of Robespierre as this megalomaniac, blood thirsty monster (oh, that’s what radicals are to liberals/conservatives anyway). Among other nice things he has said in the past, Mr. Schama has also defended Israel’s pounding of Lebanese cities in the Israel-Lebanon war. But that’s another story.

Let us talk about Christopher Nolan’s final (hopefully) movie in the Batman trilogy, the Dark Knight Rises. Though he has apparently claimed that the movie has nothing to do with politics, the political and social undertones in the movie are too obvious to miss. To give a brief summary of the story, Gotham City has been peaceful after the events in the previous movie ‘The Dark Knight’, and the Batman has retired. However, the ‘terrorist’ Bane enters this scenario and after a few attacks on Gotham, instigates the wretched of the city to revolt against their masters and to wage civil war to take power, using explicit revolutionary phraseology, in the process, exposing the lie on which peace in the city was built – while secretly conspiring to destroy the entire city as such. Though he severely cripples Batman in a fight, the protagonist returns for a final fight. No guesses on who wins.

So why start with the French Revolution?

“Tale of Two Cities to me was the most sort of harrowing portrait of a relatable recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces. The terrors in Paris, in France in that period, it’s not hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.” No, it wasn’t Mr. Schama further demonizing Robespierre referring to Charles Dickens’ literary work that excessively criticizes the alleged ‘excesses’ of the French Revolution.

The statement is of Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan, and co-writer for the movie, responding to a question on the movie’s inspiration in an interview by Buzzine. The inspiration, Dickens’ classic, was steeped in English liberal thought. “We know there are a lot of problems with the existing system, but hey, revolutions are worse.” And as the novel portrays the revolutionaries as possessed fanatics (with far greater finesse though) the movie portrays Bane and his comrades, and condemns Bane with the vehemence that Mr. Schama condemns Robespierre.

The result is the caricature of what in real life would be an ideologically committed revolutionary fighting structural injustice. Hollywood tells what the establishments want you to know – revolutionaries are brutal creatures, with utter disregard for human life. Despite emancipatory rhetoric on liberation, they have sinister designs behind. Thus, whatever might be their reasons, they need to be eliminated. Watching this treatment of Bane in the movie felt like sitting through the BBC documentary on Robespierre all over again.

But why such a harsh disposition towards Bane when a character like the Joker was dealt with (relative) lenience in the earlier movie? The Joker, calling for anarchy in its purest form, is almost impossible to be true. Though he critically underscores the hypocrisies of bourgeois civilization as it exists, his views are unable to translate into mass action for the sheer strength of will and ‘decivilization’ it would require from any individual attempting treading that path. Imagine a political person completely beyond morality and norms of any kind, beyond categorizations and compartmentalizations. Simply put, either one is the Joker or one isn’t. His threat to existing order and its guardian, the Batman, is more philosophical than physical. And the Truth that he waved in the face of Batman was combated by a lie, to save the abominable liberal capitalist society that is Gotham.

Revolution vs Reaction

Bane, on the other hand poses an existential threat to the system of oppression. He is the FARC in Colombia, the Tamil Tiger facing Sri Lanka, the PKK guerrilla combating Turkey, or a Maoist in Dandakaranya. Or the Jacobin in the time of the French Revolution. His strength is not just his physique but also his ability to command people and mobilize them to achieve a political goal. He represents the vanguard, the organized representative of the oppressed that wages political struggle in their name to bring about structural changes. Such a force, with the greatest subversive potential, the system cannot accommodate. It needs to be eliminated. With such a theme, Sri Lankan cinema would’ve made a propaganda movie against the Tamils’ struggle. Nolan gave us The Dark Knight Rises.

Catwoman’s presence is largely unworthy but for one significant symbolism. Selina Kyle, from a proletarian background, a master thief by profession, does not join her ‘natural ally’ in Bane, but embraces the Batman, quite literally, and saves his life. The lumpen seduced by the fascist? The relation Bruce Wayne/Batman has with the two main women in the film is characterized by physicality primarily.

Endurance… Sacrifice… Love!

Bane, on the other hand, with all the tough veneer, reveals the source of his hardness – love. In a fleeting, but touching moment, through a tear, the ‘monster’ tells the story of his becoming that Che Guevara so eloquently phrased decades back: “Hay que endurecerse sin perder jamas la ternura”. One must endure, become hard, toughen oneself, without losing tenderness. While Batman was brought into his line of work through a personal loss, Bane’s initiation was an unselfish act of love, which came with enduring terrible suffering and sacrifice. The ideal was not limited to his personal fetishes. As love goes, the ideal in itself was total and absolute. Contrast a Batman, inconsistent with both his personal and political lives, and a consistent Bane who saw no difference between the two. In this sense, Badiou is right in saying that the truly subversive thing in the world today is not sex, but love. No wonder, the chap who sleeps around represents the liberal system while the committed lover, the terrorists!

As for morality, ironically, the Batman proves the Joker right in this movie. The Joker had said, referring to the moral standards of the system that Batman defends, in the previous movie that “their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble.” With the trouble, the radical threat to Gotham’s system, that Bane posed, the Batman first threatens to kill him, and later, endorses his murder. Soon after that, Batman, who claimed to be morally opposed to killing, is directly responsible for the death of another main antagonist.

This signifies a crucial point in the series – morality is a matter of convenience as determined by circumstances. In Batman Begins, the protagonist is a liberal claiming that the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. In Dark Knight, he recognizes that his old methods won’t work, and he taps into an entire city’s phone conversations, besides using torture to pry out information. In the final instalment, he reveals that he will not even stop at murder to defend his system. The age old statement that the oppressors have been saying from Paris Commune to Mullivaikaal – the harder you resist, the harder we’ll hit. But the system shall remain.

Isn’t that what happens in this movie? The Batman has his back broken. Viciously stabbed. Passes through a nuclear explosion (!). But yet, he saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system. This brings us to the other crucial point – capitalism is the end of history. Batman’s changes and continuity symbolises capitalism’s persistence despite various crises inherent to it depression, war, genocide, fascism, colonialism etc. But at the end, there is no alternative. Watching the climax of the movie, I was convinced of Zizek’s argument that Hollywood can even imagine the end of the world, but not of capitalism. And the system’s old defenders will be replaced by new ones, probably with a new series of movies on them as well!

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Slavoj Zizek’s Systemic Violence and Structural Genocide Phenomena in Sri Lanka

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on December 5, 2011

Originally published on TamilNet

There have been quite some positions on ‘rights violations’ in Sri Lanka. Among those who recognize that there have been violations of the rights of the Tamils, two general camps can be observed. One are those influenced by liberal human rights discourse, who believe that certain horrific acts were committed in the war, but in a ‘post-war’ scenario, there is an urgent need for ‘reconciliation’, ‘peace-building’ and ‘rehabilitation’.

The understanding of this camp is that state violence happened as a onetime event, there were a few or many excesses in this event, but there is a possibility of a post-event condition within a united framework of a ‘better’ Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, the ‘structural genocide’ position contends that horrific violence on the Eelam Tamil body-politics is not a onetime event but is a process, and that it is not an aberration but is inherent to the system of united Sri Lanka.

The theme of structural genocide of the Eelam Tamil nation has been addressed in various articles, editorials and features on TamilNet. In this regard, the study of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on ‘systemic violence’ provides some valuable theoretical insights.

Prof. Zizek, who is a Marxist and critical theorist, writes in his brilliant book ‘Violence: Six Sideways Reflections’ that systemic violence has to be taken into account if at all one is to make sense of visibly horrifying subjective violence.

Zizek writes that “We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.”

The thinker seeks to point out that subjective explosions of physical violence, like in the Eelam Tamils’ case what happened in Black July or in Mulli-vaaykkaal, cannot be seen in isolation from the various forms of psychological and symbolic forms of violence that are part and parcel of the system.

For such a system to survive, it needs not just a Weberian ‘monopoly of violence’, it always needs to point out to the subjects it colonizes that it has the will to exercise this violence as and when it deems fit.

So, acts like land grabbing, assaults on villagers by Sinhala army men and settlers, rapes, attacks on student leaders etc. are all required by the system to function smoothly till a point where the colonized Eelam Tamils themselves are psychologically conditioned by the system to become ‘true Sri Lankans’.

The Sri Lankan system’s threats of violence through the physical presence of army men in all Tamil localities, the military checkpoints throughout the occupied areas of Tamil Eelam, intrusion of private spaces and its symbolic violence through the desecration of all symbols of Eelam Tamil resistance and identity serve the purpose of this conditioning.

Writing about such political systems, Zizek argues that, “One of the strategies of totalitarian regimes is to have legal regulations (criminal laws) so severe that, if taken literally, everyone is guilty of something. But then their full enforcement is withdrawn. In this way the regime can appear merciful”.

This is precisely the case in occupied Tamil Eelam where practically every Tamil is a terror suspect under the draconian laws unless proven otherwise, that is, unless he or she is willing to work within the framework set by the oppressor.

The Sri Lankan regime makes itself appear democratic by allowing token elections conducted with the full supervision of the armed forces, symbolically hinting that if the Tamils do not vote for the parties whom it is comfortable in negotiating with then the other alternative is force.

The fact of such functioning namesake elections and kangaroo courts is thrown by Sri Lanka as an argument of its ‘democratic practices’ and to cover up its omnipresent threat of violence against Eelam Tamils.

Much of Zizek’s book is also an intellectual attack on the liberal theorists who promote a depoliticised human rights discourse.

Zizek writes that while they claim to fight subjective violence, such liberals “are the very agents of structural violence which creates the conditions for the explosions of subjective violence.”

Those who followed the Eelam struggle closely will know how certain dubious NGOs and academic institutions minted money out of the misery of the Eelam Tamil people and the propaganda they spread and continue to spread on the possibility of ‘post-conflict reconciliation’ while simultaneously evading the fundamental political question that confronts the Eelam Tamil nation – the right to exercise political self-determination.

The argument of charitable donations by such organizations is cruel in its apparent benevolence in that it requires that the Eelam Tamils be first reduced to a state of penury so that they can intervene and make their lives better.

As Zizek notes, “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.” Organizations such as these only help providing a system practising structural genocide a good face.

Contrary to what certain Tamil politicians who are manipulated by India and/or western powers and intellectuals on the payroll of ‘donors’ may claim, the Eelam Tamils did not fight for individual human rights or equality.

That is not just a fallacy of missing the wood for the trees, but to actually make a criminal claim that there were ever no trees in a wood that have been razed to the ground.

Any genuine politics must start from the position that Eelam Tamils as a people are unequal, and will continue to be unless they have political power in their hands, in their own state.

It is also imperative to point out Zizek’s message to certain genuine humanitarians in the diaspora who are keen on doing ‘something’, without considering the core politics of what they are dealing with:

“Better to do nothing than to engage in localised acts, the ultimate function of which is to make the system run more smoothly.”

Unless one has the correct perspective of the needs of the Eelam Tamil struggle and the corresponding political will to serve the same in all actions, one will always be engaged in futile actions and be inevitably co-opted by the powers that reign.