Are we still amazed to be told that for any given structure, order or society to function, there has to be a reliance on pseudo-rules which must remain unspoken? Is it any surprise that there is an obscene supplement to Power, a disavowed, hidden side of the Law which transgresses and violates its own publicly declared rules? In other words, do we still need to be convinced that Authority has a tendency to – in Malaysian street/school talk – ‘play cheat’?
This is the basis of the understanding of the political super-ego as expounded by Slovenian writer, Slavoj Zizek. He claims that many authority-driven communities (e.g. the military, strongly bureaucratic organisations, religious collectives, etc.) require a form of pleasurable self-suppression for them to operate. On one hand, there are usually a host of rules to obey. On the other, the leaders themselves are the most clandestinely disobedient. Why? Because, in addition to being a source of personal benefit (e.g. nepotism, cronyism, bending the rules for profit, etc.), it feels great.
An ideal representative of such indulgence in Malaysia is UMNO. In a twist worthy of the Oedipal myth, UMNO’s founding leader Onn bin Ja’afar, who advocated multi-racial unity and for UMNO to open its doors to non-Malays way back in 1951, was alienated and rejected by the party itself. That UMNO’s founding leader was ejected from the party strikingly evokes the Freudian motif of a tribal horde which kills an all-domineering father (who could have any woman he wanted in the tribe), whose murder nevertheless continues to haunt them, resulting in a taboo against incest. These Janus-faced practices define the ‘true’ member of such communities which must have all members participate in transgressive rituals (i.e. those which contradict the explicit rules) without which the community would be threatened by disintegration. In a word, there is an uncanny element of jouissance at play i.e. a pathological sense of pleasure-in-pain which accompanies our submission to super-ego demands i.e. that obscene and guilt-inducing force which compels us to break the very rules it creates then mocks our failure.
However, if jouissance can be directed towards honourable ends, it may serve as a vital spur towards action. Bersih 3.0 (launched on 28th April 2012) conceivably acts to counter the super-ego element in Malaysia via its own jouissance of open and honest protest. It is estimated that almost 250,000 people converged around Merdeka Square (or Dataran Merdeka), Kuala Lumpur, for a sit-in protest demanding an end to unfair and non-manipulated procedures and processes for the forthcoming 13th General Elections. Bersih signalled a new era in Malaysian socio-political activism, capturing the passion and engagement of virtually the entire activist domain in the country. Bersih hails not merely a new form of protest nor invite a new community participants, it also reflects a new logic of protest. This can be seen by contrasting it with the major name in civil activism barely half a decade ago: Raja Petra Kamaruddin or RPK.
RPK was essentially one guy pleasuring himself via exceptional access to sensitive information (and his readers voyeuristically pleasuring themselves by watching him do all this whilst secretly wishing they were privy to such restricted data and documents). Bersih was about a collective movement that, quite literally, refused to be hemmed in. Bersih, via its demands for fair and clean elections, sought to eliminate foul play and ask for nothing more than what is already guaranteed in the Constitution. This is another way of saying that its objectives were to undermine the obscene practices of the ruling regime which publicly declare one thing (i.e. fair elections) but secretly act contrary to these declarations.
Likewise, the government’s decision to disallow Bersih the use of Dataran Merdeka for the protest was possibly a struggle between the act of covering up via fantasy and that of uncovering the void. The government’s denial by force of the protesters right to ‘occupy’ the square with peace seeks to conceal the lie that there is already a hegemonic ‘occupation’ in place. A related irony is that to declare, as Kuala Lumpur’s City Hall did, that the square is permitted only for ‘sports and cultural (entertainment) events as these events are beneficial to the public’ and to reject events of a ‘political nature’ wasn’t simply hypocrisy (as if the barring of the Square was without partisan concerns), it was also a political gesture par excellence of separating and drawing a line between domains Political and otherwise.
By disallowing Bersih the use of the Independence/Merdeka Square, the ‘elected representatives’ of the people are now declaring that the very people whom they represent are not permitted to exercise their rights to gather at one of the nation’s iconic locations (of independence and liberty) to demand reformation to the way people’s representatives are chosen (!). Bersih’s actions threatened to unravel the present regime’s grip on the symbolic order by precisely exposing these contradictions, thus puncturing the regime from within.
To continue the comparison of Bersih and RPK, the latter is one man from a privileged class having top-secret information (all of which perfectly exemplifies the logic of exception) whereas the former compromised thousands of people from various ethnicities, professions and backgrounds. RPK’s message could be characterised by the ‘fist of the people’, a clearly aggressive image; Bersih is self-consciously peaceful and its Chair Ambiga Sreenevasan even declared that those who were violent should be prosecuted. With RPK, it was largely him against the government, one huge public arena with minimal substantial involvement by the public. Bersih, on the other hand, elicited greater communal debate and engagement. Because the mode and terms of the issues were – unlike those of RPK’s – not clouded in secrecy, the participation could be more open and less restricted to only those ‘in the know’. Also, with RPK it was usually a case of outright validation or disproval of the ‘facts’ he presented. With Bersih, though, many personal reflections and conversations were stimulated. Again, there is a detectable shift from the RPK-style logic of exception and categorical rigidity (i.e. the masculine) towards Bersih-like openness, non-boundedness and even ‘mystery’ (i.e. the feminine) in that no 100% absolute clear ‘resolution’ avails itself.
This is indeed the Zizekian/Lacanian logic of ‘non-all’ which suggests the absence of totalisation and therefore is, unlike the masculine logic of the phallus, without a constitutive exception. In RPK’s case, everything depends on him and him alone. On the other hand, Bersih may suffer defections in the hundreds without the slightest dent in its influence and power.
If Dataran Merdeka itself masks the originary violence of Malaysia as a nation-state and the ruling regime’s barricade of the Square signals their defense of the national lie (and everything that the process of Independence covered up), then Bersih’s occupation of the Square’s margins points at a rhizomatically perpetual ‘keeping open’ of a gap within the nation. This is to say that an event like Bersih directs attention to the gaps within society i.e. fissures that hegemonic powers would like pretend don’t exist. RPK stood for superficiality masquerading as authentic and strong whereas Bersih embodied strength via weakness and vulnerability.
If enjoyment can be said to be a critical political factor, then the Malaysian’s people ‘shift’ from RPK to Bersih is to be welcome. This is a move away from voyeuristic esoteric knowledge towards openness, participation, solidarity i.e. from a phallic to a feminine jouissance of politics and the public proclamation of and demand for truth. Jouissance, thus constituted, would favour the just.
Alwyn Lau is a PhD (Arts) candidate at Monash University Malaysia. His email is [email protected]. Steven Sim is a Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam (Malaysia). He can be reached at [email protected].This blog posting are excerpts from Alwyn Lau Wing Wang & Sim Chee Keong (2014), “Just Jouissance: Discerning and Subverting a Politics of Inherent Transgression in Malaysian Socio-Political Discourse”, Asian Journal of Political Science DOI: 10.1080/02185377.2013.879068 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02185377.2013.879068#.UylPhvmSx8E