The Desert of the Real

Is this the end of fantasy?

BY Slavoj Žižek

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Christopher Isherwood, an Englishman who became an American, once gave expression to the unreality of American daily life, exemplified in the motel room: “American motels are unreal! … They are deliberately designed to be unreal. … The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.”

The Wachowski brothers’ 1999 hit film The Matrix brought this logic to its extreme climax: The material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached. When the hero, played by Keanu Reeves, awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins—what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”

Was it not something of a similar order that took place in New York on September 11? As we were introduced to the “desert of the real,” the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could only remind us of the most breathtaking scenes from innumerable Hollywood disaster movies. The unthinkable had been the object of fantasy. In a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.

It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw reality of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates that determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the World Trade Center, it is not that the Twin Towers stood for capitalism per se, but of virtual capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The towers symbolized, ultimately, the stark separation between the digitized First World and the Third World’s “desert of the real.”

The American sphere of safety is now experienced by its citizens as being under threat from an Outside of terrorist attackers who are ruthlessly self-sacrificing and cowards, cunningly intelligent and primitive barbarians. Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to remember the Hegelian lesson: In this evil Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence. For the past five centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the “civilized” West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction to the “savage” Outside. It’s a long story, from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo.

Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these attacks is much more symbolic: In Africa, every single day more people die of AIDS than all the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and their deaths can and could have been easily minimized with relatively small financial means. The United States got a taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one adds to the situation in New York rape gangs and a dozen or so snipers blindly targeting people who walk along the streets, one gets an idea of what Sarajevo was like a decade ago.

Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world … but whom to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the right target, bringing us full satisfaction. The spectacle of America attacking Afghanistan would be just that: If the greatest power in the world were to destroy one of the poorest countries, where peasants barely survive on barren hills, would this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? Afghanistan is already reduced to rubble, destroyed by continuous war during the past two decades. The impending attack brings to mind the anecdote about the madman who searches for his lost key beneath a street light; asked why he searches there, when he actually lost the key in a dark corner, he answers: “But it is easier to search under strong light!” Is it not the ultimate irony that Kabul already looks like downtown Manhattan?

To succumb to the urge to retaliate now means precisely to avoid confronting the true dimensions of what occurred on September 11—it means an act whose true aim is to lull us into the secure conviction that nothing has really changed. The true long-term threats are further acts of mass terror in comparison to which the memory of the World Trade Center collapse will pale—acts less spectacular, but much more horrifying. What about biological warfare, the use of lethal gas or the prospect of DNA terrorism—the development of poisons that will affect only people who share a determinate genome? Instead of a quick acting out, one should confront these difficult questions: What will “war” mean in the 21st century? Who will be “them”?

There is a partial truth in the notion of a “clash of civilizations” attested here. Witness the surprise of the average American: “How is it possible that these people display and practice such a disregard for their own lives?” Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life?

But a brief look at the comparative history of Islam and Christianity tells us that the “human rights record” (to use an anachronistic term) of Islam is much better than that of Christianity: In past centuries, Islam was significantly more tolerant toward other religions than Christianity. It was through the Arabs that, in the Middle Ages, Western Europeans regained access to the ancient Greek legacy. We are not dealing with a feature inscribed into Islam as such, but with the outcome of modern socio-political conditions. This notion of the “clash of civilizations” has to be thoroughly rejected: What we are witnessing today are rather clashes within each civilization.

Indeed, every feature attributed to the Outside is already present in the very heart of the United States. Murderous fanaticism? What about the rightist, populist “fundamentalists” who also practice a terror of their own, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity? Since America is in a way “harboring” them, should the U.S. Army have punished its own country after the Oklahoma City bombing? And what about the way Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reacted to the attacks on September 11, perceiving them as a sign that God had lifted his protection because of the sinful lives of Americans, putting the blame on hedonist materialism, liberalism and rampant sexuality, and claiming that America got what it deserved?

It is still too early to tell how the events of September 11 will be symbolized or what acts they will be evoked to justify. Even now, in these moments of utmost tension, this link is not automatic but contingent. We already see the first bad omens, like the sudden resurrection, in the public discourse, of the old Cold War term “free world”: The struggle is now the one between the “free world” and the forces of darkness and terror. The question to be asked here is: Who then belongs to the unfree world? Are, say, China or Egypt part of this free world?

The day after the attacks, I got a message from a journal that was just about to publish a longer text of mine on Lenin, telling me that they decided to postpone its publication—they considered it inopportune to publish a text on Lenin immediately after the terrorist attacks. Does this point toward ominous ideological rearticulations to come, with a new Berufsverbot (prohibition to employ radicals) much stronger and more widespread than the one in the Germany of the ’70s?

These days, one often hears the phrase that the struggle is now the one for democracy—true, but not quite in the way this phrase is usually meant. Already, some leftist friends of mine have written me that, in these difficult moments, we had better keep our heads down and not push forward with our agenda. Against this temptation to duck out the crisis, one should insist that now the left should provide a better analysis. To not do so is to concede in advance the left’s political and ethical defeat in the face of acts of quite genuine heroism on the part of ordinary people—like the passengers who, in a model of rational ethical action, apparently overtook the hijackers and provoked the early crash of the fourth plane over Pennsylvania.

So what about the phrase that reverberates everywhere, “Nothing will be the same after September 11”? Significantly, this phrase is never further elaborated—it’s just an empty gesture of saying something “deep” without really knowing what we want to say. So our reaction to this phrase should be: Really? Or is it rather that the only thing effectively changed was that America was forced to realize the kind of world it is part of?

Such changes in perception are never without consequences, since the way we perceive our situation determines the way we act in it. Recall the processes of collapse of a political regime—say, the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. At a certain moment, people all of a sudden became aware that the game was over, that the Communists had lost. The break was purely symbolic, nothing changed “in reality”—and, nonetheless, from that moment on, the final collapse of the regime was just a question of days.

What if something of the same order did occur on September 11? We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics and war this event will have, but one thing is sure: The United States, which, until now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing these kind of things only from the safe distance of a TV screen, is now directly involved. So the question is: Will Americans decide to further fortify their sphere, or risk stepping out of it? America has two choices. It can persist in or even amplify its deeply immoral attitude of “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here,” leading to even more aggression toward the Outside—just like a paranoiac acting out. Or America can finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside world, accepting its arrival into the desert of the real—and thus make the long-overdue move from “A thing like this should not happen here” to “A thing like this should not happen anywhere!”

Therein resides the true lesson of the attacks: The only way to ensure that it will not happen here again is to prevent it from going on anywhere else. America should learn to humbly accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation. Even though America’s peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere, the predominant point of view remains that of an innocent gaze confronting unspeakable evil that struck from the Outside. One needs to gather the courage to recognize that the seed of evil is within us too.

In his campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush named Jesus Christ as the most important person in his life. Now he has a unique chance to prove that he meant it seriously. For him, as for all Americans today, “Love thy neighbor” means “Love the Muslims.” Or it means nothing at all.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously and Trouble in Paradise.

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