I think I just experienced a Žižekian moment.
Bear with me as I work out what I think I mean by this…
Something I have always admired in the work of Slavoj Žižek is his ability to excise a Symbolic anchor from someplace in the world of words and images (which could be anything, a line of dialogue from a movie, or scripture, an image, a feeling, a word) and use it to pin down an idea, a figuring, a theoretical construct. This is a process of finding the complex in the singular, a chain of moments pinned to a construct with common currency—which is to say, a construct which resonates, which is already lodged in people’s heads; or else a seed-thought already planted that can be nurtured and grown given the right conditions.
A Žižekian moment par excellence for me is his brief piece “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” that he published a few days after the 9/11 attacks, when he used a singular image from The Matrix to speak to the zeitgeist of the moment, the terrible ripping feeling of the world’s imaginary image falling away from itself when confronted by the reality of the world as it truly was all along. A world in which powerful forces and nations use weapons to make buildings fall: just always there, and never here (which is, of course, against the rules).
This is something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while, because I think there is an importance to thinking through the cultural objects we use to craft theory. If the figures of classical literature and ancient plays populate the theoretical landscape it’s because they are apt metaphor, recognizable and convenient. We can excoriate Freud for his overdetermined use of the figure of Oedipus to connote and explicate some notion of familial dynamics he saw that play’s narrative reflecting, but we can’t fault him for the notion that you can borrow structure and story that has currency to move the theoretical, to inject it with a dynamic and a vector that moves it through a set of motions. Metaphor enriches theory, it breathes life into a set of propositions or relations. I would rather think about cyborg feminism than techno-biological feminism any day of the week.
But back to this eponymous moment. I just came back from seeing Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Without giving anything away, there is a line that stuck with me: “War on an industrial scale is inevitable.” (Or something to that effect.) The idea being that a World War is the inevitable result of the combination of industrial production of weaponry, business, and international business and industrial relationships. Sort of a Shock Doctrine avant la lettre. Now this is nothing new, but the way this was put into words resonated with me—”War on an industrial scale…”
Unbidden, my mind began to trace other lines that might flow from this. If war on an industrial scale is the mass produced gun, rifle, mortar; the endless stream of munitions letting fly endless streams of ammunition; all the same, mass produced and mass distributed; all with the same effect, again and again; then what were other scales of war, using the same logic. I thought of artisanal war, of the rooms full of weaponry in the British Museum, each piece hand-crafted, unique, deadly. Even repetitive work like mail armour so obviously made by hand. Weapons of a kind and variety that even giving them categorical names seems like a curators’ pretence (an iron monkey’s paw with sharpened talons labeled a “type of mace”). I thought of postmodern warfare, with strange new elements such as embedded journalists, information sabotage, and staged manoeuvres broadcast as if they were reality TV shows; of the massive hypocrisy of sanctioning one country for doing something that the country doing the sanctioning invented and still does—and never, ever discussing this fact; of the use and abuse again and again and again of media channels of all scales to maintain power and privilege of opinion with respect to the (stage) managed public sphere opinion of war.
Pulling back, the Benjaminian horror of mass reproduction done wrong seems to pale in relation to the stark and dire image of mass destruction. Because the sheer and damming thing about “weapons of mass destruction,” conceptually, is not the one weapon that can destroy all falling into the ‘wrong’ hands, but that endless mass industrial fabrication of weapons, produced at all scales with only ever one meaning inscribed into them.