08 July 2006

Reality and Simulation

Ever since I was very young I've had a very difficult time with holidays and special occasions, as I've often felt as if I was required to feign a particular emotion or way of feeling on these occasions without genuinely feeling it. This would be a variant of the superegoic command to enjoy, though I suspect that Lacan's analysis of the superego and enjoyment pertains more to prolonging infantile narcissism and the demand to satisfy aggressive drives, than enjoyment as it is sometimes characterized by Zizek or McGowen. That aside, the difficulty I've experienced with these sorts of occasions seems to revolve around the way in which they feel simulated or artificial, leading them to be haunted with the sense of the uncanny.

Recently I've noticed that this sense of the simulated has come to extend itself to my reactions to a number of other domains of experience such as films, television shows, politics, and so on. When I view the outrage of a politican or a political event (such as the concerts after 9-11) or watch a film, I increasingly find myself feeling as if I'm viewing a mock narrative, a play, an activity of going through the motions, rather than something genuine. To make matters worse, I experience these things as genuine and desparate attempts to produce a reality-effect-- and consciously so --without being successful in doing so. Everything appears staged, repeated, simulated, but as a desparate attempt not to be staged. This extends to the domain of philosophy as well. When I read Badiou calling for an ethics of the event, I find myself wondering whether one can consciously maintain commitment to an event in this way would producing a simulated or artificial distance to that event. Doesn't rendering such processes conscious and theorized already render the event null somehow? Did the Galileans think of themselves as subjects of the Galileo-event, or were they simply doing what Galileans do? Isn't there something paradoxical in Zizek calling for an act, when an act is precisely that which cannot be called for? There seems to be a desire to find a way out of the endless labrynth of the determinants of the encyclopedia or the world of doxa, but somehow attempts to theorize this transform these lines of flight, subtractions, and acts into one more element of the encyclopedia.

Am I alone in feeling this strange sense where all reality comes to feel simulated, staged, and artificial? Already we find talk of this between Neo and Morpheus in the Matrix, when Morpheus first asks Neo whether he hasn't always felt as if there wasn't something slightly off about the world of the matrix, something unreal and simulated. Of course, the Matrix proposes, like Plato, a true reality behind the artificial reality of shadows and images. Today we've given up on the reality/appearance distinction. Nonetheless, it seems that a fundamental mutation has taken place at the level of the symbolic and how the symbolic is organized. On the one hand, the constant accusations of voting fraud (now occuring in Mexico and Germany as well) suggest that we are living in the midsts of a crises of legitimacy where the social tie itself is somehow collapsing. This isn't to suggest that worries about voting fraud aren't real, only that the social tie no longer seems to hold or has become destabilized. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that political news coverage today spends all its time talking about strategy and on the part of politicians and parties, rather than their platforms and proposals. That is, Nietzschean suspicion, Nietzschean critique, the hermeneutics of suspicion is now the reigning doxa or common sense, rather than the explosive force that it once was with regard to naive acceptance of ideology. It is suspicion itself, doubt, that sustains the current system, not ideological mystification hiding other motives. Nobody today is believed to say what they mean or mean what they say... Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud have won the day, but not in the way anyone might have expected.

For this reason, Zizek seems to be essentially correct when he argues that the truly radical gesture is to genuinely believe. When we talk about multicultural ethnic and religious tolerance, aren't we really saying that no one should genuinely believe in what they profess to believe, that any system of believe is just an "arbitrary signifier" clothing a "signified" that is the same for all of us? That deep down we're all really alike? Genuine belief, by constrast, if it exists, is premised on the exclusion of certain things on the basis of the affirmations that it makes. In Zizek!, there's a scene where Zizek takes Judith Butler to task for chastising him for being a Lacanian. "Look," he says, "there's no secret here. I am a Lacanian!" It is precisely this, perhaps, that is traumatic... That he doesn't simply dabble in Lacanian theory or treat it as a "toolbox" taking from it what he finds useful, but that he's genuinely commited to Lacanianism. And similarly in the case of the fundamentalist that recognizes that his religious belief isn't simply an optional set of practices that are "true of him", but the very nature of his being and non-negotiable at the level of how he lives and how he engages with the world. The problem is that I can't will to believe. The very desire to believe already separates me from belief and suspends what it is that I strive to believe, pushing me back into the world of simulation. My belief becomes a simulated belief, the phantom of a commitment.


Anonymous David said...

Hi Levi, great stuff to read (and I wish I had more time to respond here and/or on the Lacan list every now and then).

This might be totally off target but I was wondering - what if Zizek/Badiou and many related continental leftist intellectuals simply have too hopelessly outdated a concept of what constitutes 'belief' in the first place? Are we talking about belief in the sense of larger life values (where belief would be a synonym for faith) or in the technical-epistemological sense (knowledge)? For me, what's interesting is that it seems that today the belief in the sense of the former is increasingly monopolized by the latter as all belief gradually becomes self-reflective and subject to 'scientific' scrutiny, thus turning into knowledge. One of Zizek's favorite riffs is that today when no one believes, even the (formerly) non-negotiable ethical questions are left to committees and panels made of groups of 'experts' out there to decide on questions such as whether abortions are ethical and so on.....I wouldn't say the problem nowadays is cynicism or detachment (Zizek argues convincingly that people believe today as passionately as ever, or so Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown show) but the widespread Ricoeurian "hermeneutics of suspicion" you mentioned where everyone expects to be given facts and answers for everything so that, in the end, no one acts because things always turn out to be too damn complex (or undecidable, as the motto of the day has it).

Don't we have here the discourse of the university displacing the discourse of the master as discussed recently on the Lacan list? Unlike universities which pursue the paranoid knowledge about the Other of the Other under the pretense of objectivity, impartiality and facts, masters don't give answers, masters speak in tautologies (I am who I am). Unlike the inverted fascism of university, the discourse of the master invites confrontation. As you said "genuine belief, by constrast, if it exists, is premised on the exclusion of certain things on the basis of the affirmations that it makes". This comes close to Badiou's (Mao's) "when one divides into two" or to Laclau's conception of politics dealing with competing hegemonic projects....However, the masters are in a difficult position because they ultimately proffer S1 - signifier(s) without content which, as any mediocre Voltaire in town knows, are all too easy too attack (just try to engage a religious person in a conversation about the essence of God. What you'll get in the end is that God is...God. I know, I've tried many times). In contrast, the discourse of the university has all breadth of S2 at its disposal to prove the master wrong.

Just to give an exemple of what I mean, here in Europe, it's fashionable these days among intellectuals talking politics - say the situation in Israel - to disclaim all belief (in the "romantic" sense of the term) by reverting to the typical ploy of the university, suggesting that the core of the problem is that there are fanatics on both sides who are causing all the trouble, and if only there were sensible, moderate leaders who would forget religious issues, the disputes about the holy sites and so on (in other words, all belief in that infantile religious hocus pocus that the mature, enlightened, secular Europe has long since shed), everyone would live in peace and harmony.

One of the main advantages of the discourse of the university is thus that it frees the subject of the burden of responsibility, and ultimately of any position of enunciation. The disciples of the university pretend to speak from the position of facts (S2), not vulnerable non-negotiable master-signifiers. When in the position of the master, the subject pretends to sit atop an arborescent tree which can either grow or be cut down, the university produces rhizome-like subjects, collections of disembodied facts whose only raison d'etre is to parasitically skip between different toolboxes (I am not suggesting Deleuze's philosophy has anything to do with the discourse of the university, I'm just using his concepts as metaphors to convey my ideas).

In the end, what I sense in Zizek, Badiou and the rest is the Heideggerian nostalgic craving for the Master of the "only the God can save us now" variety which repeats itself in the guise of militant commitment to revolutionary acts and Pauline events.

July 08, 2006 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Levy, you are not alone when feeling, Ever since I was very young I've had a very difficult time with holidays and special occasions, as I've often felt as if I was required to feign a particular emotion or way of feeling on these occasions without genuinely feeling it.

I know EXACTLY what you mean.

Here, I guess we have to bring in Jean Baudrillard and his idea of the simulacrum which I have always found fascinating.

He made his important points 25 years ago and we still need to fully grasp them, I think.

But both he and you still operate with the concept of parallel worlds (cf. your reference to The Matrix - and its reference to Baudrillard).

I'm tempted to quote Nietzsche in all his blessed political incorrectness: The world is womanish. There is NOTHING inside.

Even the mourning (implicit in your post) of the loss of authenticity is troubling when in your post about Philosophy and Energy, you write,

Despite the fact that philosophy has made tremendous strides in overcoming the primacy of the representational subject in the last hundred years, it seems to me that a good deal of theory continues to think under this paradigm.

Yes. So can't we avoid the nostalgia of thinking that there was a time when emotions were genuine and true, whereas now it is all hype, buzz, pretence, and simulation?

Thanks again for your well-written and stimulating ruminations.

PS: Please stop calling me Olga. I am not a female Russian gymnast, but a (proud) member of the opposite sex :-)

July 08, 2006 4:56 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...


This sounds right. Zizek had already called the idea of belief as a propositional attitude into question in Sublime Object, and instead suggested that belief is to be located in the doing, not the thinking. Indeed, the idea that beliefs are something that we "have* already, perhaps, refers to the manner in which the symbolic has begun to lose its legitimacy or its ability to sustain itself. For instance, when Pascal finds that he must resort to a wager in order to establish belief in God, it's already clear that something fundamental has changed in the nature of this belief.

July 09, 2006 3:48 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Orla,

I wonder if what I'm talking about is nostalgia, so much as the sense that we seem to dwell within an age where we experience any possibility of fundamental change as impossible. I recall an episode from the Simpson's that captures this point perfectly (do you get this show where you are?). Homer has begun travelling as a human cannonball with a group of rock bands. At one of the concerts he walks on stage, and one punk kid in the audience sarcastically says "Oh, it's the human cannonball guy. He's cool." His friend responds, saying "Are you serious or making fun of him?" And he says, in the same sarcastic voice, "I don't even know anymore."

As David points out, we seem to live in an age where we get critique after critique as a sort of immediate, reactionary response to any proposal made. The effect is that while we're hypercritical pointing out how everything is an ideological mystification, nostalgic illusion, hidden desire, etc., we end up doing nothing at all. Paradoxically the critiques point out all the mystifications of the system in which we live, while leaving that system completely intact.

July 09, 2006 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Ivo Slangen said...

Good post, in a very horrific way, and great discussion. My fuzzy contribution, in defense of Badiou.

'In the end, what I sense in Zizek, Badiou and the rest is the Heideggerian nostalgic craving for the Master of the "only the God can save us now" variety which repeats itself in the guise of militant commitment to revolutionary acts and Pauline events.'

This is exactly what Lacan told the students of May '68: 'You are all looking for a new master!' Question seems to be if you believe the subject can pass or not. For Lacan (and Zizek) the lack is structural. Badiou does believe we can pass through the Real, without being totally destructive, but while retaining the old in the new.

To put Heidegger and Badiou in the same line is quite careless. Badiou spends his whole life polemizing against the sacralization of Infinity and the pathos of Sein/zum/Tode. The One is not, and it certainly cannot save us. Death is no event, but a banal fact. Nothing nostalgic or romantic about that. Badiou dwells in the stellar void of Mallarmé, the cold formalisation of truth, not the lukeward hermeneutic pathos and the coloured call of Being.

Isn´t the problem of believing, the problem of the Ego, a false way of being. The subject doesn´t believe, it desires.

Therefore the only thing we can do, if to get out of this impasse, is stay true to that which exceeds me, my desire for the subjective un/known. What `I´ believe is not important anymore. I have to continue to exceed my own being, to think, which is to implement the consequences of an event, of this exceptional desiring. The event itself is not so important, only it´s aftermath. The event is not a revelation of imaginary order, as is the Heideggerian return of the gods, but a passing through the real, for better or for worse.

As Zizek says at the beginning of Zizek!: ´Assume the mistake and go to the end!´

Decisionism? Not totally, because an event has to seize you first, and they are rare. Perhaps you have to believe that events happen from time to time. Or you believe that ´Nothing takes place but the place´, but then the Spectacle already turned you in a disembodied wraith, forever castrated.

July 10, 2006 8:47 AM  
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