Topping the list of “Most Pointless Practices Ever” has to be the airline safety procedures passengers are subjected to before every flight. Anyone who’s flown more than a few times would by now be indifferent (and irritated?) each time the inter-com demands our attention prior to take-off. Ladies and gentlemen, please focus on the cabin crew demonstrating the use of the (invariably dirty-looking) life-jacket, telling us about the oxygen-mask (which always looks too small), sardonically warning us that if we light up a cigarette in the toilet the smoke alarm will go off, and so on.
Yet, how much sense do these safety announcements make? When, indeed, was the last time an ocean plane-crash produced survivors, let alone survivors who made it because they had their life-jacket on? Furthermore, a casual glance at the flight paths around the globe will show that if a plane is going to crash, the chances of it going down in water are slim: it’s far more likely for a plane to hit something on land rather than splashing into water, in which case it won’t be life-jackets we need but non-expired life-insurance.
Then again – and here is the critical part – what if these pre-flight messages were to, all of a sudden, stop? What if safety procedures were made optional and many airlines decided to scrap them? Or what if passengers were told that this aircraft has run out of life-jackets, has no spare oxygen, has only one exit, etc? I risk this answer: There would be mayhem. Within a few days (if not hours), airlines would have to revert back to normal and the very idea that such pre-take-off announcements be cancelled would be rendered anathema.
The above illustrates the phenomenon known in psychoanalysis as neurosis i.e. the belief that should a particular habit or ritual stop, the world will come to some kind of end. Neurotics have to keep repeating a certain action (say, rubbing their fingers, scratching themselves, checking their locks, turning the doorknobs, etc.) because life to them is tied up with said activities.
Like pushing the ‘Close Door’ button on the elevator – which for all intents and purposes has little or no impact on the duration of the actual trip – neurotic procedures persist not simply because people are deceived into believing in the efficacy of these actions but because they cannot bear the idea that these activities are unrelated to the way the world works.
Like how some girlfriends cannot help linking flowers or birthday gifts to whether or not their boyfriends still care for them (despite the thousand and one things he may have done in the past), neurotics derive a strange kind of pleasure from the fact of repetition, even (or especially) pointless repetition. They love the thrill of moving to the edge of personal disappointment or fear, only to have that fear relieved by that deed, whose effect cannot last permanently because without the risk of disappointment, there is no joy of the thrill of overcoming the displeasure ad infinitum.
According to Freud, such repetition is also linked with an inability to remember (or symbolise) a past trauma, hence his famous motto: What we can’t remember, we are destined to repeat.
What is the socio-political relevance of neurosis? According to ┼╜i┼╛ek (who is by his own admission neurotic too given that he can’t stop writing), socio-political neurosis can be seen in actions and words which are made or performed for no other reason than because institutions cannot seem to function without them.
Take the discourse on democracy in Malaysia. Politicians from both side use the term as an appealing catch-all, both sides accuse the other of abusing it and neither side would dream of explicitly promoting authoritarianism, yet in practice both sides violate it. The Barisan Nasional government’s use of money politics, racism, religious hatred, abuse of the media, imprisonment without trial and manipulative changing of the constitution over the years are only the most salient examples.
However, the Opposition isn’t quite the saint of Democracy either. Progress within a party requires party connections; to suggest that Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s rise has nothing to do with the fact that he is the son of long time Democratic Action Party supremo, Lim Kit Siang, would be as outrageous as the idea of it merely being a coincidence that the Chairman of CIMB, Malaysia’s largest bank, and the Prime Minister of Malaysia share the same parents and were children to Malaysia’s second Prime Minister. Pro-Opposition State Assembly speakers sometimes can’t hide their bias very well (not via SMS at least) and Anwar Ibrahim’s plan for the 16th September 2008 takeover of the country, for all its noble intentions, given that it involved the defection of a few dozen government law-makers into Opposition members, simply cannot be described as ‘democratic’ (for wouldn’t this involve violating the votes of many thousands of people who voted for the ruling regime?).
Notice, too, how Anwar – in his open letter regarding Sept 16th – appealed to the ruling regime (and, quietly, to the people) to respect the ‘consciences, constitutional rights and independent judgment of the defecting MPs’ who were about to switch allegiance AFTER being voted in. This is worth repeating: The leader of Malaysia’s Opposition has declared that democratic procedures can be overruled by personal conscience, reasoning and the Constitution(!) which represents, among other things, the violation of democracy as part of its defense – which is ‘cool’ (and is an event ┼╜i┼╛ek himself would likely be in favour of!) but then why keep pretending that it’s democracy we’re after? Why not ‘get to the point’, use whatever means we can and tear down injustices once and for all? Why the crutch, the shadow, of democracy?
Wouldn’t it be more helpful to circumvent the language of democracy, speak new anchor words, thereby opening new worlds of thought in the process?
Why keep hogging the word even though it’s clear it’s at best window-dressing and at worst hypocrisy? If we can appeal to personal reasoning, then why not take it all the way and reason for something like armed struggle or revolution a’la the Arab Spring?
In this vein, ┼╜i┼╛ek uses Lacan to over-turn the original Freudian motto whereby repression preceded repetition. Now, that which we fail to repeat is precisely what we’ll be haunted and bound to remember. This understanding of repetition/repression mirrors the Lacanian Real which is the minimal irreducible remainder/antagonism after the wealth of differences in the symbolic field has been subtracted. In other words, the Real is a primordial form of repetition and subjects need to ‘touch the Real’ (via a form of repetition) in order to break free from the constraining limitations and categories of the Symbolic Order (i.e. our world in all its experienced actuality).
Thus, ┼╜i┼╛ek’s imperative in the political domain can be characterised by his dare to ‘repeat Lenin’ i.e. this revert back to the opportunities and possibilities opened up by the Russian revolutionary leader, to try and re-try (over and over again) to spark that revolutionary moment in which the present system can be entirely overturned, be violently subverted and to ‘wipe the slate clean’ (socio-politically speaking) so a new order/discourse can emerge.[Note: Lacanian psychoanalysis is about reconfiguring the patient’s relationship to knowledge and the destabilization of life categories. This is to say that within a Lacanian framework, there are no ‘absolute’ values and morals thus opening the door to justify all kinds of actions.
The only ethical ‘imperative’ Lacan has is for people to be true to that part of themselves they do not fully know of regardless of the socio-personal cost. This almost inevitably requires a ‘shake-up’ of the moral and ethical guidelines which have previously structured their subjectivity, binding them to alienation and perceived loss which takes the form of false harmony and coherency in their lives. A ┼╜i┼╛ekian perspective translates this from a personal domain to an inter-personal arena which, unsurprisingly, ends up inclining emancipatory efforts towards violence and revolution. In other words, politically speaking, this is ┼╜i┼╛ek at his most dangerous. ]
Another manifestation of neurosis is the tendency of pro-justice activists to continue supporting the Capitalist order. This is especially bizarre given the by-now open knowledge that in Malaysia (as in many other countries) collusion between government and business is no contingent but in fact is a defining characteristic of the system.
Given that much of the profit goes towards buying votes and elections, the virtual non-existence of protests against the Capitalist system itself (by people who protest every word that comes from the mouth of their most despised politicians, who protest rare-earth processing plants like it’s the next Armageddon, who promote events like ‘Earth Hour’ like it’s not in itself a publicity stunt for corporations for whom the environment will only be as important as its marketing appeal) is positively bizarre.
Profit, patronage and politics are inseparable in Malaysia. We know that this system of big businesses and profit-making is part and parcel of the injustices in the country YET the majority of the us favour it, long to be kings and queens within it, can hardly dream of much else except seeing longer numbers in our bank deposits.
What we say we want or need is one thing. Our attachments, our actions and our needs suggest another thing. If ┼╜i┼╛ek is right, then democracy and capitalism are (but) two items our neurotic mindsets have to forcibly rid themselves of by repeating the emancipatory gestures of revolutionary leaders in the past.
And if he’s wrong, why, then I suppose Malaysia can always do what a neurotic does best i.e. repeat himself pointlessly?