Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Signs from the Future by Slavoj Zizek
The first thing to say is that the subterranean work of dissatisfaction is still going on: the rage is building up and a new wave of revolts will follow. The unnatural relative calm of 2012 is more and more perforated by growing tensions announcing new explosions. What makes the situation so ominous is the all-pervasive sense of blockage: there is no clear way out, and the ruling elite is clearly losing its ability to rule. Even more disturbing is the obvious fact that democracy isn’t working: after elections in Greece and in Spain, the same frustrations remain. How should we read the signs of this rage?
In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes the French historian Andre Monglond: “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.” Events like the OWS protests, the Arab Spring, the demonstrations in Greece and Spain, and so on, have to be read as such signs from the future. In other words, we should turn around the usual historicist perspective of understanding an event through its context and genesis. Radical emancipatory outbursts cannot be understood in this way: instead of analyzing them as part of a continuum of past and present, we should bring in the perspective of the future, taking them as limited, distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future that lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential. . .
While we must learn to watch for such signs [of hidden potential], we should also be aware that what we are doing now will only become fully readable once the future is here, so we should not put too much energy into a desperate search for the “germs of Communism” in today’s society. What is needed, then, is a delicate balance between reading the signs from the (hypothetical Communist) future and maintaining the radical openness of that future: openness alone ends in a decisionist nihilism that impels us to leap into the void, while taking the signs of the future for granted risks succumbing to the temptation of determinist planning (pretending we know what the future should look like and, from the position of a meta-language somehow exempted from history, we just have to realize it). . .
The times of “revealed Communism” are over: we can no longer pretend (or act as if) the Communist truth is simply here for everyone to see, accessible to neutral rational historical analysis; there is no Communist “big Other,” no higher historical necessity or teleology to guide and legitimize our acts. In such a situation, today’s libertins ( postmodern historicist skeptics) thrive, and the only way to counter them – to assert the dimension of the Event (of eternal Truth) in our epoch of contingency – is to practice a kind of Communism absconditus. For those who have taken up an engaged subjective position, subjects who ‘desire to see”: the intrusion of the impossible Real into our ordinary reality that momentarily suspends its causal nexus.
Recall Christ’s skeptical words from Mark 13 against the prophets of doom: “If anyone tells you. ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, Look, there!’ don’t believe it. For there will arise false Christs and false prophets, and they will show signs and wonders, that may lead astray, if possible, even the chosen ones. Be on your guard!”. Watch for the signs of the apocalypse, bearing in mind the meaning of this term in Greek, apokalypsis (“lifting of the veil” or “revelation”), is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
On account of this radical heterogeneity of the New, its arrival cannot but cause terror and confusion – recall Heiner Muller’s famous motto: “the first appearance of the new is the dread.” Or as Seneca put it almost two thousand years ago: “Et ipse miror vixque iam facto malo / potuisse fieri credo” (Although the evil is already done, we still find it hard to believe it is possible [Medea 883]). This is how we react to radical Evil: it is real, but still perceived as impossible. But does the same not hold for everything that is really New?
There are in French two words for “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for “future” as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of tendencies already in existence, while avenir points more toward a a radical break, a discontinuity with the present – avenir is what is to come (a venir), not just will be. Say, in today’s apocalyptic global situation, the ultimate horizon of the future is what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point”, the zero-point of the ecological breakdown, of global economic and social chaos – even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” towards which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the catastrophe is through acts that interrupt this drifting towards the catastrophic “fixed point” and take upon themselves the risk of giving birth to some radical Otherness “to come.” We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it does not designate the closure, the impossibility of change, but what we should be striving for – to break the hold of the catastrophic “future" and thereby open up a space for something New “to come.”
This is why we should return from Marx to Hegel, to Hegel’s “tragic” vision of the social process where no hidden teleology is guiding us, where every intervention is a jump into the unknown, where the result always thwarts our expectations. All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely: whatever will come after will not be “our future.” A new war in the Middle East or an economic chaos or an extraordinary environmental catastrophe can swiftly change the basic coordinates of our predicament. We should fully accept this openness, guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from something New that is coming.