Žižek and social change in Malaysia – Part 1

Slavoj Žižek is widely acknowledged to be one of the most creative and vibrant inter-disciplinary philosophers today. He has written more than 30 books covering topics ranging from cultural theories and film criticism to political philosophy, theology and psycho-analysis. Some of his more popular and accessible works include Violence: Six Sideways Glances, How To Read Lacan and First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.

This series of articles discusses some ‘principles’ (if they can be called that) extracted from the work of Slavoj Žižek and applies it to Malaysian life. Here’s the first one:

#1. “The way to overcome a problematic scenario is to fully identify with its assumptions and framework”

This is known as traversing (or disturbing) the fantasy. Žižek explains this via the example of three popular movies.

In the bus-thriller Speed (with Keanu Reeves), there’s a scene where a terrorist takes a policeman hostage as part of his attempt to escape. The hero decides to shoot his own colleague in the leg. This makes it virtually impossible for the terrorist to drag the policeman outside, thus completely foiling the terrorist’s plan.

Similarly, in the Mel Gibson movie Ransom, the father of the kidnapped boy radically subverts the kidnappers’ demand by offering millions of dollars for information leading to the rescue of the boy. In some sense, the father had already accepted the loss of his son; his actions, therefore, reflected and generated a complete reversal of the situation, putting the kidnappers on the defensive.

Finally, and most radically, in The Usual Suspects (starring Kevin Spacey), the protagonist when threatened with the murder of his wife and children, proceeds to kill his own family thus removing them from the equation and allowing him total freedom to pursue his enemies.

In all the three cases/movies above, the coordinates of the game were totally changed; the system no longer appeared the same to all involved. This is what Žižek hopes to see in political action – acts that bring about massive systemic crisis and a drastic subversion of the socio-political framework itself.

Another example Žižek mentions is given at the start of Jose Saramago’s book, Blindness, in which during an election a virtual no-show of voters dealt a severe systemic blow to the whole system.

Žižek claims that such an event - a mass rejection of elections which necessitated a reappraisal of the very concept of democratic elections – was ‘more violent’ than what Hitler did with his world wars and genocide which, so Žižek says, was a very busy and active way of ensuring that nothing really changed; the Third Reich embodied, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, a French phrase oft quoted by Žižek, meaning, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Why?

Because Hitler, instead of addressing deep class antagonisms, chose to (mis)-direct Germany’s problems towards the Jews, homosexuals, Communists and so on.

Yet the movies examples and that of Saramago’s novel point to one key element of political action which Žižek challenges us to: That true ‘acts’ of the Real involve a striking at one’s self, a voluntary (and often desperate) personal sacrifice of what truly matters.

Such actions include the radical faith that in order for something ‘better’ to emerge, even the ‘good’ at present must be vanquished if only because it continually chains to a fantasmic system constituted by and propagating a deception that there is no better system to speak meaningfully of.

These examples also highlight how, perhaps the ultimate way of defeating a bad situation could be, to act as if one completely holds to its fundamental tenets in the hope of thereby exposing the lie or facade of the system itself. This is the obverse of the fact that, according to Žižek, people tend to believe things half-heartedly, ‘from a distance’, at arms’ length and so on. Yet it is precisely such distantiation of belief which keeps us in bondage to the system prescribed by the belief.

Why?

Because the distance deceives us into believing that we’re not really assimilated, thus allowing us to simultaneously continue behaving as if we do believe.

Take the Malaysian education system. Virtually everybody realises and recognises how superficial and unhelpful it is for children to keep working and hunting for the highest number of A-plus’, to continue with memorisation/rote-learning and such.

However, in direct contradiction to these concerns, parents still continue to push their students to score as high as they can in every school examination. The very same parents who say they “no longer believe in the education system” will chasten their children for not performing well within that system.

If pushed, the normal response will be, “Well, I don’t really believe in the system, but unfortunately our culture and industries still rely on it”  - in other words, I don’t believe in it but since someone ELSE does, I have no choice!.

This is akin to one of Žižek’s most quoted jokes about the man who believes he’s a seed of grain. He goes to a doctor, gets some medication and a week later the doctor asks him if he still believes he’s a seed of grain. The man says, “No, but the chicken still does!”

The solution – traversing the fantasy – would then involve acting as if the system was 100% correct and without error. So, parents who want to challenge the system of A-accumulation can possibly do the following:

  • pull their children out of all activities not related to obtaining an A;
  • lobby that all extra-curricular, physical education, moral education and health education be replaced with extra tuition classes;
  • perform severe public punishment on their children should they get even 1% less than the score required for an A;
  • insist that schools should hire only teachers who have scored a minimum number of As’ in their previous examinations at school or university or at teacher-training colleges, etc…

Crazy and disastrous?

Exactly.

The rationale is to push to the extreme the effects of a system which privileges top marks to the exclusion of thinking, creativity, teamwork and fresh pedagogical approaches.

But back to politics.

Some historical milestones Žižek has considered suggestive of this kind of Real Act include the May ’68 student protests in France, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (and the founding of the Church), the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin’s collectivisations,  the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and of course, the French Revolution.

In the Malaysian context then, what could a political act of the Real look like?

What fantasy-belief sustains the political system (which almost every Malaysian condemns)?

What is it that every Malaysian will never say they believe, yet inadvertently determines our behaviour?

 

Alwyn Lau is a member of Friends in Conversation. He is presently a lecturer in Sociology at KDU University-College and is also pursuing a PhD  at Monash University (Malaysia). His research interests include theology, critical theory, political philosophy, psychoanalysis, hot food, misunderstood people and the occasional bad movie.