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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: kant

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)


Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.


Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory


Really, what I want to talk about here is the unspoken axiom behind all epistemology: that we ought to believe statements that are propositionally true, and that we ought not to believe statements that are propositionally false. This general principle is rarely ever stated, and tends to just appear as the hidden code that governs any logical process. P1 is true, so it was kept; P2 is false, so we no longer considered it; the fact that this is less a logical axiom than a moral injunction is subdued in all this bloodless process, while the invidious character of the terms ‘true’ and false’ neatly closes up any gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that would otherwise make such an ethics of reasoning more distinctly problematic. In any case, there are forms of truth beyond the propositional, ones where this autogenerative law finds itself making commands beyond its jurisdiction. What about the revealed truth of religious texts, which must be believed before their truth can become apparent? What about the unconscious truths of psychoanalysis, which must not be consciously believed in order to function? It’s now accepted (among most of the media and political classes, at least) that the statement ‘While at Oxford University, Prime Minister David Cameron took part in an initiation ceremony during which he fucked a dead pig’ is not propositionally true – but even if that’s the case, isn’t it in a very important way more true than the truth?

But I’m not going to resort to postmodern vaguery, beardscratchingly prognosticating on the distortion inherent in any reduction of truth to concept. Instead, I want to sink down deep into a set of statements that are generally considered to be propositionally false, and surface arguing why we should believe them anyway. For this I’m choosing conspiracy theory, because conspiracy theory is fascinating and mysterious and vast, and I love it, and I hope that you do too. Conspiracy theory appears to be an epistemic discourse, almost maniacally focused on ‘truth’ – so that, for instance, the phrase ‘9/11 truth’ for most people immediately yields the meaning ‘crazy 9/11 speculation’. But the other great master-signifier of conspiracy, the call to ‘wake up’, is very different: we’re dealing with modes of experience, the clouded, the fantastic, the pellucid, that demand a consideration beyond dreary propositionalism: a phenomenology of shapeshifting lizards and the New World Order.

An interesting point of entry here is provided by ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Popular Wisdom‘, an essay by the University of Otago philosopher Charles Pidgen, published in Episteme volume 4, issue 2, which has been doing the rounds lately in certain left-wing circles that are understandably sensitive to accusations of conspiracy theory. Pidgen’s central proposition – that we should believe conspiracy theories, or at the very least investigate them while being open to the possibility that we might – is not dissimilar to mine, but the case he makes is an epistemic one, and given that there’s clearly something broken in epistemic reasoning, it’s inevitably insufficient. He thinks we should believe conspiracy theories because they are propositionally true. He begins by noting that the charge of conspiracy theory is often used to discredit ideas that are unhelpful to the powerful, and that according to the conventional wisdom conspiracy theories are a priori absurd and unworthy of investigation. But if we hold this position, and sensibly define conspiracy theory as ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy,’ then we have to throw out most of what we know about the past. If we don’t believe in conspiracy theories, then we would have to hold that Brutus and Cassius and the others all happened to come up with the idea of murdering Caesar independently and coincidentally. ‘Much of recorded history would dissolve into a blur of inexplicable events.’ (Which, from a certain Benjaminian perspective, is exactly what it is, but never mind.) Clearly none of this is tenable, and so Pidgen – who’s spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds – quite correctly concludes that there’s something wrong with his definition. But if conspiracy theory isn’t just ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy’, then what else could it be?

Pidgen’s proposed redefinition is still insufficient. When the conventional wisdom tells us not to believe in conspiracy theories, he writes, it means those ‘that postulate evil schemes on the part of recent or contemporary Western governments (or government agencies) and that run counter to the current orthodoxy in the relevant Western countries.’ He notes that the idea that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and in league with al-Qaeda is not considered a conspiracy theory, even though it posits a conspiracy. But because of his focus on propositional truth, he ignores the tissues through which any proposition lances. A conspiracy theory is an explanatory device used to make sense of conditions that are not entirely understood: a general prerequisite for conspiracy theory is that it is sincerely believed by the person that proposes it. The charge that Iraq had WMD wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it was a lie. It’s very possible to imagine conspiracy theories that don’t fit Pidgen’s definition. Had George W Bush instead announced that President Hussein were the high priest of an ancient Mesopotamian death-cult that had controlled humanity since the dawn of civilisation through the emasculating medium of writing, and that he could only be defeated by a sturdy gang of tooled-up all-American illiterates, some people might still have believed him, but that would have been unambiguously a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory isn’t a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it’s a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present.

We could start, Occam-like, by proposing that conspiracy theory is the general tendency to attribute visible events to invisible conspiracies when a simpler and more plausible non-conspiratorial explanation is available. But that’s not enough: what is a conspiracy, anyway? It’s not a epistemic or a phenomenological concept, but a legal category. Of course conspiracies happen; if they didn’t, there’d be no need for a law. The crime of conspiracy was not codified until the Criminal Law Act of 1977; until then, in English common law (which also provides the basis for law in the United States and many Commonwealth countries), it fell under the category of ‘inchoate offences’, along with attempt and incitement; a nebulous cluster of suspicion, sporadically enforced and prosecuted according to the whims of the enforcers. The charge is not entirely extricable from that of witchcraft, broadly understood as a conspiracy with the Devil; as such, a conspirator could easily have been working alone. (Aren’t we all conspiring within our own heads?) In common law, something that is not an offence may become one if conspiracy is present: handing out medicinal herbs is legal; doing so with the Devil at your side, or after meeting your coven by midnight, is not. Conspiracy was not considered to be the mode of operation of the powerful, but the powerless: Satanic peasants in rickety huts, plotting against the mirrored institutions of God and State. The first major shift came with Lutheranism, and its charges of Papal blasphemy: suddenly it was not only the rulers who feared conspiracies on the part of their ungrateful populations, but everyone; social existence itself became a host of potential conspiracies. For obvious reasons, this is not a sense of the word that made it into the 1977 Act, which states that ‘if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either— (a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or (b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible, he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.’ One important provision of codified conspiracy law is that conspiracy is only an offence if the act that the conspirators intend to commit is itself an offence. In conspiracy theory, meanwhile, the acts that are alleged to have been perpetrated by unknown conspirators are sometimes formally illegal (assassinating JFK, carrying out the 9/11 attacks), but more often tend to exist in a Benjaminian sphere of violence that founds the law, and is incorporated into it (putting flouride in the drinking water, faking the Moon landings, inventing the Holocaust). It’s hard to imagine the shapeshifting lizards being taken into court in handcuffs; in any case, for an alien lizard to invade the planet by assuming human form and putting strange patterns on the currency isn’t even a crime in most jurisdictions. (It might, conceivably, be a tort.)

The ‘conspiracy’ in ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to the term in its pre-codified sense, in which it describes not a hidden relationship between multiple human individuals, but a relationship between human individuals and hiddenness itself. Conspiracy theory is not a theory that posits a conspiracy, but the hypostasisation of conspiracy to the level of theory, or occlusion as a general system of Being. It’s not just that public events have hidden causes: the seen is only an attribute or epiphenomenon of the unseen, which is essential to reality. In many conspiracy theories, the primary aim of the conspiracy seems to be the presentation of an experience in which the conspiracy itself does not outwardly appear. For readers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, what appears to be the chaotic stampede of human history is actually an elaborate performance-piece engineered as a distraction by the Jews lurking backstage. Flat-Earthers believe that a vast and sinister plot exists to place globes in every classroom and doctored images on the TV, with the sole purpose of having us think that the Earth is round. In David Icke’s sweeping cosmology, the Moon is an artificial satellite broadcasting something called the ‘Moon Matrix’ (although it actually originates from Saturn), an information-blocking signal that reduces our consciousness to its five limited senses. More convincingly (although I’m here not really interested in evaluating the propositional truth of any of these notions), many leftist media critics consider the wealth of images in capitalist society to form a single ‘spectacle’ that obscures existing class antagonisms.

None of this should be particularly unfamiliar: conspiracy theory in this sense is a kind of Kantianism. Noumena, the objects as they actually are, are by nature hidden from us; all we can approach by reason or perception is the phenomenon, the distortion provided by our senses. But rather than performing a Husserlian Einklammerung or epoché, conspiracy theory maintains a puckish Hegelian ambition to touch the face of the thing-in-itself. Its goal is reconciliation: as in Adorno, the subject-object distinction is not eternal but the product of particular historical conditions. But given that the conspiracy itself is by definition imperceptible, it’s not possible for one to have direct knowledge of it within experience. (There are, of course, people who claim to have witnessed UFOs spinning through the sky, or to have listened in on the cloistered Zionist congresses; there are various ‘leaked’ documents purporting to be minutes of the global conspiracy, but in practice such transcendental arguments make up a surprisingly small portion of the general conspiracy corpus.) Instead, conspiracy theory tends to coincide with a strange form of immanent critique, in which the visible phenomena of the world must be ‘decoded’ to reveal their secret meaning. Hence the insistence that the secret masters of the world would, for unknown reasons, leave little clues around the place pointing to their existence. Banknotes are popular here – what’s that eye and pyramid business about? And did you notice that if you fold them a certain way, it looks just like the photos of 9/11? Numerology and cod-etymology is also popular: can’t you see that it’s called an iPhone because its ‘eye’ is always watching? If we’re not living in Hell, then why do we greet each other with Hell-o? Conspiracy theory could be understood as less a set of discrete propositions and more a Heideggerian Stimmung – attunement or mood, a mode of In-der-Welt-sein in which phenomenal reality reveals itself to Dasein in some particular manner. Here, as in boredom (discussed in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), things appear empty and impoverished, but by contrast they are not without interest. They point beyond themselves to their occulted source; the world takes on significance not as a world, but as a map. Conspiracy theory reaches beyond the world as it seems, not by grasping at clouds from tiptoes, but by digging down, uncovering the foundations of things to see the vastness below.

It might be futile. But is it, phenomenologically speaking, true? In Heidegger, truth is not a matter of a subjective mental image conforming to reality, but the disclosure of a world. Truth is ‘letting whatever is sleeping become wakeful’ (sheeple) – the unconcealment of what had been hidden. I say that Socrates is mortal, and his manifest mortality, knobbly knees and tremoring heart, is suddenly made apparent to you. In this sense, conspiracy theory – all conspiracy theory – is true. And it’s a truth far more fecund and far more fun than anything allowed to us by epistemology. In conspiracy theory, the things of the world are atoms of signification, to be combined and recombined into the modes of appearance of any number of potential noumena. ‘The RAND Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner.’ Life encrusts itself like milk on endless fathoms of possibility. And yes, most of it is evil. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember that through much of our history, the conspiracy was not a creature of aristocratic malice, but a mode of popular resistance. The Illuminati is not only to be fought; it’s to be established.

Grand Theft Auto and the extinction of being

More like Geworfenheit Theft Auto amirite

In Rostov-on-Don, a provincial city in the south of Russia, two men had an argument in a supermarket. There’s no footage of it, but we can imagine the scene. The squeaky lino floors, the tinny sound of pop music. The strip-lighting, buzzing as it casts a dreary mundane pallor on the rows of produce, scrubs the shadows from the faces of the disputants, and eventually drains all colour from the flecks of blood. The other shoppers look on first in exasperation, then in horror: the argument devolves into a fistfight until its frenzy reaches a point where one man pulls out a gun and fires several rubber bullets into the other’s head. So it goes. What’s brought this dull event to the world’s attention is the fact that the two men were reportedly arguing about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The international press has treated this story with a kind of wry amusement: it’s perfectly normal to shoot someone in an argument over sex or money or football; it’s pretty weird (and kinda funny) to shoot someone in an argument over the nature of the noumenon. Going by the experience of history, this isn’t really the case. For a good part of the 20th Century, a philosophical debate (or at least something that claimed to be a philosophical debate) about the degree of contradiction between the material dialectic and humanist values got so out of hand that for a quite while it looked like the only way to properly resolve the issue was through the mass slaughter of every human being on the planet. Disputes over the mysteries of the Holy Trinity saw swarms of horsemen turn fields into hellish seas of mud under their hooves and reduce cities to blood-drenched ruins under their swords. Aristotle’s doctrine of virtuous moderation allowed his protégé to send a moving line of fire and bloodshed that swept from the Aegean to the Indus. You haven’t really made it as a philosopher until you’ve stacked up a decent body count.

Even Kant, shy and gentle, punctiliously pedestrian, isn’t exempt from the violence of philosophy. Presidente Gonzalo, the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path, had a secret identity: Abimael Guzmán, mild-manned professor of philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga University. As the group’s notorious massacres in peasant villages show, he had a lot to learn about the proper implementation of Mao Tse-Tung Thought; nonetheless, his Kantian credentials are impeccable. If anything, transcendental idealism handily lends itself to a certain kind of will to destruction. Like most very clever people, Kant had something of a nasty smug streak. In his What is Enlightenment?, he describes the unenlightened condition of humanity as a ‘self-imposed nonage’: if other people are stupid, lazy, and cowardly, it’s only their own fault; leaders and tyrants only channel this mass stupidity rather than imposing it. This is why he can write that ‘freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community.’ Against those who try to stifle argument, Kant proposes the dictum ‘argue as much as you like – but obey!’ Enlightened argument can only proceed towards a singular truth, and if a ruler is himself enlightened, then any argument that challenges his rule is by definition invalid, with no place in a liberated discourse. Kant’s enlightenment admits no contradiction. There’s a very short line from his veneration of Frederick’s Prussia to a man being shot in the head in a Russian supermarket. The shooter was applying the categorical imperative perfectly: if everyone who dares to be so clearly and obstinately wrong about philosophy gets a rubber bullet to the head, then proper reasoned argument can begin, to the benefit of all humanity.


One man shooting another because they disagree about the fundamental nature of reality is a funny human interest story. Someone pretending to shoot a virtual prostitute is grounds for a moral panic. Every iteration of the Grand Theft Auto series of games seems to raise the same clamour: it’s an awful, violent game in which you, the player, can fuck a prostitute, kill her, and then take your money back. It’s a strangely specific complaint – after all, you can do a lot of terrible things in GTA, your basic mode of existence in the game is that of a spree killer. This might have something to do with the level of intent involved: the game is ‘open’ to the extent that you can walk into a shop, stand in line for a while, and then shoot another customer in the head, but you can’t (yet) have a steadily escalating argument about Kant with him beforehand. The prostitute scenario is different; you have a reason to kill her. Ultimately, I think there’s more to it than that. The real object of horror isn’t the murder, it’s the retrieval of the money. What’s being dramatised is a violation of the laws of exchange, those in which – as Marx puts it in Volume I of Capital – ‘the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.’ By taking your money back, you’re breaking a contract, dispelling the comforting illusions of the marketplace, turning the covert oppression of the trade in bodies into its overt expression in violence.

The question of violence in video games is based on the horror of the uncanny: it’s about the power of images of things to come alive, the potential for onscreen violence to turn into actual violence. What’s apparently certain is that these games have some primordial connection to humanity’s intrinsic cruelty. Depending on whether you believe the dessicated pinch-faced puritans or the sloppily hirsute misogynists that make up video gaming’s core user base, this relation is either one of normalisation, in which representations of violence bring our animal natures out from the fragile cloak of civilisation – or one of release, allowing an expression of this violent nature that helps us function normally in the real world with only minimal loss of life. The case of the argument over Kant in Rostov-on-Don shows that it’s a little more complicated than that. Violence doesn’t proceed only from violence but from something quite different; there’s nothing more shatteringly, existentially violent than the infinite stillness of a Rothko multiform or the fragile sorrow of Chopin’s nocturnes. I’m not going to question whether or not human beings are existentially violent; at root the question is what it means for us to be violent, or, more fundamentally, what it means for us to be – and, as Heidegger shows, our being is inseparable from the world in which we exist.

Heidegger’s innovation is not only to ground ontology in actual existing beings instead of some grand unifying principle (as in Spinoza’s substance or Leibniz’s monads) but to stress the situatedness of the ontological object. His term for the human mode of existence, or that ‘which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being,’ is Dasein – literally ‘being-there.’ Awareness of your own existence is a matter of experience rather than a solipsistic Cartesian introspection; Dasein is a being-in-the-world rather than a being that just so happens to find itself inhabiting something vaguely world-shaped. This world isn’t just a set of beings, or the spatial framework in which they are dispersed: in Heidegger’s definition, ‘the world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we feel ourselves to be at home.’ Non-human beings, meanwhile, are encountered in two modes: as present-at-hand (in which they’re an object of detached contemplation) and as ready-to-hand (in which Dasein is absorbed in their use, with the categories of subject and object falling away into the undifferentiated process of work). Against much previous philosophy, which considers entities in terms of their properties and attributes, Heidegger stresses the primacy of the ready-to-hand. On perceiving a hammer, we don’t think about its abstract composition but how we can use it. The world is filled with equipment; useful, handy things.

It’s a nice way of thinking about things, but you get the feeling that for all his talk of handiness and equipmentality Heidegger would still have trouble with an Ikea wardrobe. Beyond that, Heidegger’s system runs into some problems when we’re forced to confront beings that aren’t handy or useful to us. True to form, he has his own word for this: Unzuhandenheit, unreadiness-to-hand. The unready-to-hand tool is something broken that doesn’t fulfil its function properly; it inhabits a grey phantom zone between the absorption of the ready-to-hand and the distant appraisal of the present-at-hand. We become aware of the thing as an object, but at the same time Dasein is engaged with it in the search for a solution. What happens, though, when we come up against something which is working in perfect order, but whose being is directly adversarial to ours? It’s an important question, because these things have come to dominate our lives.

Scholars of Heidegger tend to dispute the exact nature of Dasein and its relation to what we think of as the human being (there haven’t been any recorded fatalities yet, but there’s still plenty of time). Graham Harman and other advocates of object-oriented ontology attempt an ‘anthropodecentrism,’ in which the status of human beings as those beings that move towards their own Being is deprivileged. In a way, they have it right. Under industrial capitalism, an understanding comportment towards Being isn’t something that occurs on the level of the human, but on that of the firm. Humans are instrumentalised, first through their labour-power, and again through their position as consumers, becoming tools used in the production process. Capital-producing institutions are Dasein, reaching out towards an authentic existence; we are Zuhandenheit, the equipment used. The immense wealth of commodities produced is useful, but not for us. There are few consumer items that are used to solve our problems; our new technologies impose themselves as the solutions to problems that didn’t even exist before their arrival. Tools bear the stamp of their owners; now the tool is the stamp. The new iPhone has a fingerprint scanner, the new Xbox has an always-on camera. At the same time, it’s these same things that are used to stage our response: a steady, furious crusade against everything useful and handy, a purging of our own usefulness. Our violence is the violence of a being-in-the-world whose ability to understand that Being is under threat of extinction.

Watch someone playing GTA – not going through the storyline missions, but really playing, tearing at random through the vast cityscape, mowing down pedestrians, ducking down alleyways to avoid the cops. The landscape is littered with useful things, but rather than being absorbed in their use, we discard and destroy them. Get out of one car, steal another, over and over again. What distinguishes Grand Theft Auto is the sheer destructibility of the environment; we are the equipment through which the world’s destructibility is realised. In a world where the relation between humans and tools is inverted, the game offer us another reversal. Heidegger describes the condition of the individual human as one of thrown-ness, a state that goes beyond its Sartrean reformulation in the precession of existence over essence to encompass the position of having-to-be-open. We’re tossed into a world we don’t understand; to make sense of it we have to open ourselves to other beings. Through GTA, the world is thrown into us and has to be open to us. We’re faced with the infinite usefulness that’s lacking in reality. And so, of course, we have to destroy it.

PS: Incidentally, this is why video games can never be art. Art discloses the world; by giving us a world thrown into us, video games enframe it. They’re technology, and also a waste of time.

PPS: I haven’t actually played the new GTA, but they’re all basically the same, aren’t they?

Guest column: Slavoj Žižek reviews ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

It would be tempting to perform a crude Freudian analysis of the Harold & Kumar films, to say that in Harold and Kumar we find the basic categories of superego and id respectively, with Kumar as the hedonist that leads the two into a state of peril, and Harold as the rational law-abider who constrains the desires of his friend, and so on, and so on. But this is not the case. We must always be conscious of the fact that the ultimate command of the superego is to enjoy, to fulfil your fantasies; and because the object of desire cannot be attained, it is that same superego that is the source of anxiety. Is it not Kumar, then, who is then the superego? Our desires lead to neurosis only when they are consciously articulated.

We must ask: what is desire in this film? It is not the smoking of marijuana, that forms only a kind of subcultural backdrop to the narrative. Rather, the Harold & Kumar films take the form of the heroic quest: the heroes must go off and find something, they have escapades along the way, eventually it is retrieved and there is the happy ending. In Lacanian terminology this ‘something’ is the objet petit a, the transcendent object of desire. It is the eventual obtainment of this object that renders the first film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a work of fantasy. What is desirable about the objet petit a is intrinsically linked with its quality of unattainability; it is only in the fantasy-space of the film that such desires can be realised. In the film, the attainment of the hamburger is bound up with the attainment of other fantasies – Harold stands up to the bullies of the workplace, he talks to the girl he is attracted to, and so on, and so on. White Castle is therefore a symbolic representation of all desire. One could comment on the imagery of the white castle itself – in medieval poetry the white castle is a symbol of Heaven or the Kingdom of Truth; then as now the white castle is a transcendent Utopian image – or, as Derrida would have it, a messianic image, an image of that which is always yet to come – in which is encoded our very earthly desires, as in the Islamic fantasy of the seventy-two virgins.

But see what happens in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. This is not at all like the first film, the two heroes are not acting on their own desires. Rather, Harold must find a replacement Christmas tree for his father-in-law: he is acting out of a sense of duty towards the Other. The pivotal moment of the film is when Harold tells Kumar that he does not have to replace the tree, rather, it is that he wants to. And again further on, when Kumar faces his responsibility for his unborn child: it is not because he has to, but because he wants to. This is not, I think, a casting aside of duty so much as a reinterpretation of duty. Here, we see the old Kantian conception – Du kannst, denn du sollst! – being dispensed with, it is too rigidly compulsive, it does not sit easy with our liberal individualism. What we get instead is a strange inversion: Du sollst, denn du wollst! – you must, because you want to!

I find this despicable, almost totalitarian, even – far more so than Kant’s formulation. Even our desires are not our own, the hegemonic order insists not only that we do our duty, but that we really want to do so. It is like when Saddam Hussein published his novels under a false name: his megalomania was such that he did not just want good reviews because he is the dictator, he wanted the people to genuinely love his writing. Only when the novels were derided in the newspapers did he republish under his own name and shoot the critics. Is what we see here not the same thing? If there is a message in this film, is it not that we must genuinely love the duties imposed on us by capitalism, that we must find jouissance in the fulfilment of duty?

Where A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas fails is precisely in this attempt to reconcile duty with desire through the matrix of capitalist institutions: the family unit, the workplace, Christmas, and so on, and so on. Duty towards the Other must not be subject to desire! What we must instead admit is that under capitalism our desires are different to our duties, or, in the language of vulgar Marxism, our desires are superstructural to the economic base. Our duty consists of confronting and changing our desires, not in the alienating manner of the Freudian superego, but through the radical project of overturning the current socio-economic order in the name of the Other. Against the false union of duty and desire we must proclaim the primacy of duty, we must, in effect, return to the old Kantian formulation. It is significant that the finale of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas requires the intervention of the supernatural in the form of Santa Claus: under capitalism, duty and desire cannot ordinarily be reconciled. What is needed in our situation is another form of supernatural intervention – the intervention of Benjaminian divine violence. Only then can this antinomy be untangled.

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