Žižek and social change in Malaysia – Part 2

In the techno-apocalyptic hit movie, The Matrix, the hero John Anderson (eventually renamed Neo) was given the choice of two pills by his mentor, Morpheus. There was the blue pill, which would keep Neo within the illusory realm of the computer-generated world of The Matrix.

Or, he could take the red pill and plunge down the rabbit’s hole of the truth (that the world as he knows it is nothing more than a software being run and he’s really stuck in a gel-based bath-tub with two dozens wires plugged into him).

Blue – to stay inside illusion. Red – to have one’s eyes opened to truth.

Žižek has, however, proposed a third pill: One which lets us see the truth within illusion (let’s call this the purple pill).

In one of his master-classes on Lacan, Žižek discusses a comic strip in which three men are asked what they enjoy doing in their free time. The comic strip shows each person answering with a particular hobby (e.g. playing an instrument, mountain-hiking, painting the house, etc.) but thinking the same thing: sex.

Žižek then suggests that reality is more complex because given the nature of sexual fantasies, who ever dreams of doing the act immediately and ‘animalistically’ as if the only thing going on inside even the most horny minds is the ‘act’ of coupling itself .

Don’t we all weave a narrative of fiction (be it about seduction at the office, at a friend’s house, whilst cooking, or whatever)?

The point is, according to Žižek, the comic strip had it backwards: It should’ve shown the men saying “I want to have sex” whilst imagining different scenarios (e.g. in the park, at the symphony, at the backyard, etc.).

Which brings us to the second Žižek /Lacanian principle in this series (go HERE for the first one):

Truth takes the form of fiction.

Our social world cannot survive without fictions. Truths require fictions.

Take our social and business conversations. Don’t businessmen often ‘dance around’ at the start of negotiations and make all kinds of pointless trivia before casually easing up to the matters at hand?

Then again, is it really possible to have business discussions sans the small-talk?

Don’t we, whenever we have to point out some embarrassing mistake (either by ourselves or others), often cloak the communiqué in ‘polite laughter’?

Then again, especially with people of equal status, how often do we simply call up a person and immediately point out an error?

And when has any political party ever admitted any of their actions or policies to be politically motivated in the least?

Is this because they really think people don’t know?

Or could it be precisely because they know that any intelligent voter will be concerned should their favourite party admit to having political motifs at all?

What would every BERSIH supporter think if all of a sudden Anwar declared out loud that part of BERSIH’s objectives was to put Pakatan Rakyat in power?

Then again, is the proposition that a major public rally against the incumbent government has something to do with raising the popularity of the Opposition, in the least surprising?

And if not, would it not then be the public nature of such a declaration from which the shock-value is derived i.e. that suddenly the truth (which everybody knows) is no longer ‘in the form of fiction’?

Likewise, would the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) ever explicitly state that 1Malaysia seeks to exclude certain parties from being in office, that it’s about keeping UMNO in power?

The truth of political hegemony relies on the fiction of universal popularity.

In this sense, perhaps it’s less helpful to keep repeating how UMNO is full of cronies, scandals and so on.

Perhaps Lim Guan Eng and Karpal Singh of the Democratic Action Party should go live on TV (local and international) commending Barisan Nasional (BN) for being absolutely and 100% corruption-free.

Such a fiction – precisely because it fails to hide the truth of BN’s corruption – could spur people to ask what in heavens is happening.

“If all you want to say is that BN is corruption-free, why are you saying that BN is corruption-free?”

This would be akin to a world-class criminal who inexplicably gets caught (which, in the movie The Dark Knight, was actually what the Joker did).

In such cases, what’s being done is that fiction is being wielded to pronounce a ‘special’ kind of truth. The objective is nothing other than to direct their listeners’ attention to the ‘deeper’ truth hidden within their actions or statement (or, in the case of the Joker, to ‘hide’ his truth from the police).

Isn’t it remarkable, too, in an age where ‘clear’, unambiguous theological doctrine is encouraged, that Jesus in particular decided to make his main form of teaching parables i.e. storied fictions?!

Was there something about the kingdom of God which couldn’t abide with overly straight-forward direct exposition?

Could it even be the case that God ‘learnt’ from the Old Testament apostasy stories how even the most detailed and precise form of truth-propositions (i.e. commandments, rules and regulations) failed to touch the heart and therefore preferred His Son to speak awry for a change?  To obtain holistic understanding precisely by risking mis-understanding?

Theological truth – to be grasped in its life-changing totality – needs the narratival power of ‘fiction’.

I recently chanced upon a strange event.

The government has recently embarked on some heavy renovation works in the area that I live. This has caused the re-routing of traffic away from a common road to one which passed straight through some (reasonably high-class) residential houses.

As I drove out, I soon I reached a fork in the road. If I turned left, I would have to drive through right in front of the houses. If I turned right, I would drive on the rocky half-road prepared by the contractors temporarily. It was entirely my choice.

But here was a peculiar sight: A man, obviously a resident, was standing at the fork with his dog, holding a thumbs-up towards my right turning (towards the common half-built road) and bowing repeatedly towards me.

It appears this man, having reached the end of his rope with the traffic and pollution, decided to humble himself by sincerely requesting drivers to take the public road, instead of the one leading to the front of his house (and others).

It was a strange, almost ‘fictional’, sight which nevertheless worked well to communicate the truth of his predicament – that economic growth, the very vehicle of his wealth, as manifested in burgeoning public development, was now taking away his privacy and (to some extent) his very idea of a home.

A master of business, of profiting off the institution of economic consumption, had to adopt the fiction of a servant – bowing, kow-towing even – to present the truth that business/consumer interests are ‘consuming’ the very place where he lives.

That man embodied the paradox of Capitalism: That our very efforts to obtain riches will double-back on us. If the man at the road was a businessman, it’s more than likely that his riches were assisted by some government infrastructural works which disrupted somebody else’s living space! Yet now here he is. Almost powerless at a road which threatens to engulf his peace of mind.

Which brings me to a final ‘truth’. What if the lies and sensational events and debates of Malaysian politics all serve to embody the biggest publicly disavowed truth in the country?

What if all the battles against injustice, against corruption, between Pakatan and Barisan, all serve to fictionalise the one truth that people dare not admit i.e. that in the end political justice is ultimately wedded to economic prosperity?

The fiction of the entire political sandiwara (shadow play) serves to ‘hide’ (precisely because it presents in hidden form) the truth of Capitalism. This is the truth that in the end it’s not justice that matters, it’s not freedom of speech, it’s not racial unity, it’s not the plight of the orang asli - in the end, it’s the national bank account. That must be sustained at all costs and ultimately the nation couldn’t care less who’s in power.

Recall, too, the 1999 General Elections which saw the majority of Malaysian  Chinese – arguably the most educated and well-off group in the country – more or less vote the Barisan Nasional way and remain relatively unaffected by all the cries of Reformasi.

Perhaps this also explains why in Selangor, the government juxtaposes ‘no plastic bag’ Saturdays with the ever-increasing growth of building projects. So on one hand, the people should care for the environment whilst on the other the air and rivers be damned if developers need to worship at the altar of Profit.

Capital’s supremacy today takes, because it exploits and hides behind, the form of political struggle – is this true? Or mere fiction? Or do we need a pill to figure it out?

Part 1 is available HERE

About Alwyn Lau, Guest Contributor