Archive for July, 2008

The Society of Perversion

Posted in Posthuman Perversion with tags , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

The cultural shift from modern to postmodern is a curious one: we move away from a society concerned with discipline and routine customs and strict difference of work and home to a society with a disappearing boundary between labor and leisure plus an added bonus of a whole lot of free porn. In other words, if society at large can be seen as a person, the disciplined neurotic has now turned into an irrational pervert.

A lot of reasons should come to mind. A first obvious one would be what I have stated above — the disintegrating boundary of labor and leisure with the advent of computers, and later cyberspace. Does this disintegration not also serve as a symbolic disintegration of the big Other of the work office? Seeing the symptoms apparent in today’s society, I am tempted to claim so. This disintegration, however, both constitutes and is a part of a larger cultural phenomena — the advent of new media (for an explanation on the relationship, please refer to Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media). In other words, the changing structure of media itself changes the psychological sphere of society.

Where do we begin? Let us take the Lacanian position in regards to analyzing perversion: it is essentially the disavowal of the fact that the mother does not posses a phallus. This mother for the society at large is the mother that deep feminism has introduced to us: nature. What is nature? Nature has always been understood as some kind of mystical balance existence itself, something that can only be experienced as mediated by the ultimate big Other of its laws. But what is happening today is precisely the realization that there is no nature: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, chaos theory, economic failures, etc. — the Lacanian “the big Other does not exist” suddenly emerges in most — if not all — intellectual fields. Then there is the added anxiety with our natural biological existence that comes with biotechnology and cybernetics combined — the shadow of the ultimate inefficacy of biology; the Haylesian becoming of the posthuman.

In short, the advent of the posthuman means the traumatic realization that the mother does not possess the phallus (of balanced deterministic progress, benevolence and subordination towards mankind, and so on), and the perversion prevalent in today’s society can be precisely read as a symptom of the disavowal of such realization. This can be confirmed by looking back into the previous mode of society, the neurosis — are we not precisely, by repressing sexuality, repressing our “natural, animalistic” instincts? With postmodernity, our sexuality is no longer repressed — it is let loose, but disavowed of its being a highly emotional and subjective, “uncodable” experience, for we have to treat it as an act of mere casual fun and games (I first blogged this issue here). Recall the notion of the animal signifier — being an “animal” used to be a derogatory remark, but now it means positively sexually aggressive, especially when compared to the now hip derogatory remark of being a “robot” in a relationship. (Curiously enough, the notion of “sex robots” are positive only qua an other we want to have sex with, not as).

As we are about to become near-spiritual beings with biotechnology and cybernetics, we force ourselves to have as much detached sex as possible, because we secretly fear that we could never be posthuman. We have now a perverse injunction to regard oneself as the instrument of the actual bodiless sexual relations, since the body is now a mere prostheses — a phallus of the Other apropos biological strap-on dildos.

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Against Anti-Corruption

Posted in Political Focus with tags , , , , , , , on July 28, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

No, I’m not an idiot, because by that title I certainly do not mean I am pro corruption. Yes, indeed corruption is a big problem, especially when you live in a country that is among the world’s most corrupt states. However, I see a big trap in viewing corruption as the main problem. Corruption is a problem, but Žižekian as I am I tend to be critical of how this problem is perceived, i.e. what questions are asked and what actions are taken to resolve this problem.

Broadly speaking, the mainstream history of post-1998 Indonesia can mainly be summed up as follows: (1) the decline of state due to flourishing corruption and (2) the rise and insurgency of Islam proclaiming itself to be the political move to take if we are to get out of this socio-political mess at all. I, however, remain skeptic to these notions — I believe that both corruption and fundamentalist Islam are but mere dummies, one dummy problem followed by one dummy solution. And here is the ultimate proof: we know we prefer corruption to authoritarian bureaucracy (bribing culture is part of the Indonesia “traffic safety” code), and we know we will never achieve a total Muslim state. We are not idiots. They are battles already lost before the start, done for the mere sake of “sadomasochistic pleasures of postmodern society that longs for a disciplinary paternal figure” (Žižek).

You want a bigger catch? Consider this: corruption does not exist. (And neither does “fundamental Muslims” who believe they can make the world better by destroying shops — I have blogged the latter here (though I am always open to further analysis) and on this post I will concentrate on the former.) In what sense does corruption not exist? Frankly, I think we know: it does not exist in the precise sense that we, in our stupid daily self-existence, would never say “Oh, I have just practiced corruption.” We bypass laws by money in a much more subtle way, under pretenses of norms and ethics, time management, daily codes of life, and so on, forever mystified. To think in more Lacanian terms, “corruption” never exists as a signifier related to the self — it is always a signifier of the acts of the other, and as such, always presents itself as a spectral predicate that is done by the other supposed to take the blame, ever evasive by its very linguistic nature.

Žižekian once again, this is how ideology precisely functions: ideology is not “I am a state official” or “I am a Muslim” — it is “I am a state official, but nevertheless…” and “I am a Muslim, but nevertheless…” Ideology is precisely this negation, this distantiation of formal codes and the claim that we are “nevertheless (a human being with feelings, etc)”. In fact, our daily acts of actual corruption (bribing authorities, etc) takes place precisely in this sphere of “nevertheless-ness” — as a state official I never do corruption, but nevertheless I am a human being who logically needs to make money for my children’s education and maintain relations in my social circle, so I engage myself in exchanging of gift tokens since that is my most socially conforming option. Anti-corruption is deemed to be forever a wrong battle to its very linguistic core.

The second point of why corruption is a trap is that it renders all institutional practices as though otherwise harmless. I am a Marxist here, and if there is a lesson we learn from the Marxist tradition is that social structures based on capitalism are fundamentally violent, even when they are not corrupted. An easy example would be the sky-high rocketing costs of education. This is not the result of corruption, but it is corrupt in its very manifested structure that allows only those with money to attain proper education. BHMN universities overcomes bribery itself by externalizing bribery into its very legal structure. Gross crude moves like this one becomes secondary at the thoughts of “anti-corruption”, even though it illustrates the more fundamental obscene social pathology: capitalist greed.

To actually solve problems we will do well by rethinking their definition and rendition. It is not enough to take these problems for granted, since they are most likely already veiled by the ideological operation of self-distantiation (the “nevertheless-ness” I explicated above). Rethinking what we mean by “fighting corruption” is a necessary step before taking any action, so as to not fall into further traps by making hasty actions without a proper cognitive mapping. Our enemy, as I like to put it, is never corruption, or the lack of fear for God, for they are mere symptoms that can be appropriated by anyone to support their own greedy causes. Our problem is corporatism. Our enemy is not how we conduct and manage our greed. It is greed itself.

The Screen and the Prison: Lacan and Manovich on the Subject

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , , on July 20, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Lev Manovich provided a great reading of the screen’s history in his The Language of New Media. There, Manovich presented an allegory of the screen with the prison (though he was not the first to make such an allegory) — Our mobile gaze has a cost of imprisoning our body within a position or contraptions of a device. However, if we are to ask the famous Bateson question “Is a blind man’s cane a part of him?” to this formulation, we get interesting results: if the answer is no, then that cane must also be a prison, since we are trapped in the contraptions of a cane, much as a car is a prison, much as the Manovichian idea that VR is a final form of the prison of the screen (“… we carry our prisons with us … the retina and the screen will merge.” p.114). If the answer is a posthuman nod of yes, then not only is a cane part of the blind man, the screen-retina part of the futuristic subject, but also the theater building is part of the spectator.

Thus we see a very interesting conflict of embodiment-imprisonment within our notion of the subject. And here Manovich’s study of the history of the screen plays a more pivotal role — as any good psychoanalytic film studies scholars would agree, a history of the screen is a history of the gaze, and a history of the gaze is a history of subjectivity (hence my studies of the monitor phase). Embodiment and imprisonment, it seems, has become two sides of the same coin. The augmented gaze of the screen is the freedom for which we pay. With Lev Manovich, the theories of Jacques Lacan is now subject to technological mutation.

Fukuyama was Right, but Hegel Lives on

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , , on July 19, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Readers of Žižek should probably be familiar with the famous Žižek quote of “It’s easy to make fun of Fukuyama, but aren’t we today all Fukuyamaists?” Yes, indeed most of us today are clearly Fukuyamaists, in the sense that we do not muse about ideological alternatives to global capitalism anymore. Instead, the primary concerns of today are mainly how to make the system more open, tolerant, humanist, ecological, religious (in some cases), and so on. History in the sense of ideological battles is over, save perhaps for Muslim backlashes.

But what is interesting in the Muslim backlash — and other struggles in the contemporary society, including non-“ideological” ones — is the immense stress people tend to put on their cultural and ethnic identity. Of course there has been many researches on this matter, probably spawned by Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. People are becoming increasingly sensitive in their physical being — race, ethnicity, cultural heritage and customs, sex, gender. It is important to read Fukuyama by his 2002 book, Our Posthuman Future — in this book he basically fixes his end-of-history thesis, claiming that a revolution in biotechnology will provide new terrains of struggle, thus continuing history.

Here we see a line, a pattern in current struggles: physicality. People are becoming increasingly sensitive towards their physical state and what physical states can and cannot do, what the misrecognized image of themselves are and are not. Technology and the increasingly augmented gaze it has brought forth has dissected and questioned the significance of the human body with all its properties. The body itself is now, more than ever, the terrain of struggle.

It is here that I am being a Hegelian, both in the broadest sense of seeing history as a dialectical process and in the idealistic, disembodied “Spirit” sense. What we are now seeing is in fact a dialectics between man and machine, between body and information. We can see clearly the negation of negation present in contemporary history: Cold War – End of History – Posthumanity, Modernism – Postmodernism – Žižekian 180-degree turn, and so on. Thus, although history may have ended (we are only denying the fact and calling Fukuyama an idiot because of “postmodern” or “cultural” reasons, but we nevertheless skeptically believe, and so on), I would claim it naive to dismiss Hegel as well. Perhaps, he may be more relevant in the posthuman — isn’t that the “Spirit” that Hans Moravec just downloaded into a computer to become immortal?

The Simulacrum’s True Lie

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Jean Baudrillard is famous for his theories of the simulacrum, quoting from Ecclesiastes, which — to refresh your memories — goes as follows:

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals the fact that there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

A common reading of Baudrillard would be that the simulacrum is the empty appearance that disguises the hollow nothingness behind it. However, there is at least one problem that arise once we take this into the truly postmodern context. Frankly, are we today, in general, not already aware of the fact that there is none? If so, why should the simulacrum present itself as concealing this fact? It is here that we see the true trick of the simulacrum — the fact that it claims itself as a truth that conceals. It is therefore not the fact of nothingness itself that is the problem — it is the fact that the simulacrum has to present itself as concealing. It may conceal nothing behind it — but the verb remains. And, in a tautological turn, it is this predicate that defines the subject — the simulacrum is concealment, hence concealment is true.

The true perversion of the simulacrum thus lies in the act of proclaiming a third dimension to it, that it carries an empty world behind it — the Baudrillardian trompe-l’œil. Empty as it were, but it functions, and it functions very well precisely because it is conceived as empty, deep, impenetrable. This is why in the contemporary age we have an excessive dose of conspiracy theories, new age mysticism, individualist narcissism, and other symptoms that make global capitalism flourish in its current state of being. These modes, I argue, can only function when the simulacrum of our social sphere is conceived as a truth that conceals.

In fact, the simulacrum is not a truth that conceals. It is a lie that shows. There is nothing behind simulacrum, not in the sense that there is nothing behind it, but in the precise sense that even nothingness itself is impossible. It does not conceal because it cannot conceal — there is nothing to conceal, not even a dimension that legitimizes the linguistic possibility of concealment.

A great metaphor of this linguistic impossibility would be the case of General Relativity — recall the way Einstein treats the void in his astrophysical formulations as physical objects that can bend and stretch. Empty space, in relativistic astrophysics, is a tangible object. Opposed to this, we have absolute nothingness — that which lie beyond the universe, before the Big Bang, inside a black hole. In this second category, their very linguistic statement is a paradox — there cannot be such as “beyond” an all-encompassing universe, “before” time starts in a Big Bang, or “inside” the singularity of black hole cores. Likewise, the simulacrum cannot “conceal” — the statement is impossible. The simulacrum is flat, two-dimensional.

Recall a typical scene from old cartoons where the antagonists are trapped into running straight into a wall painted to look as if there is a tunnel through it that enters into another world. This painting does not conceal the fact that there is no world behind it — its very texture precisely shows that there is no world, it expects us beforehand to see that there is no world, and only the idiotic antagonist would believe that there is. If there is a thing it conceals, it is the fact that it does not conceal anything. The protagonists are never allowed to see through this obscene second-layer of lie, and can usually thus enter into this third dimension precisely because he knows that it does not exist, because he does not believe in it. The antagonist is the one who believes too much. The protagonist is the one who does not believes, but for whom things work precisely because he creates a self-distance from his own supposed belief. Hence ideology. Hence the true lie of the simulacrum.

The Problem of Institutions

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Ideology, in the general sense of the way society works, can always be conceived as a problem of institutions. This view is simple, one which looks at cultural-societal structures and the ideologies that constitute them by analyzing what dominant institutions are at play in shaping the general world view of the day. In the past, we have had the church as the key institution in society. Afterwards we had political parties. Today, when virtually the majority says they could not care less about politics — many in an attempt to portray themselves as more “cool” and generally having more ability to enjoy life — we have corporations, that play just as large a role as the dominant institution. We can of course extrapolate this notion to include why an “ideology of cynicism” with its “superego to enjoy,” in Žižekian terms, works very well in the contemporary age of presupposed freedom, but that would start another discussion.

(One may also be tempted to continue this with a reading of corporations personified, as is done in the 2003 documentary The Corporation, the opening lines of which inspired this post, but I will not delve into that here, though I would agree this should have some significance.)

In a posthumanist-Marxist terms, that is to say in a future-oriented Leftist movement, then, the revolution problem becomes a problem of overthrowing the corporation from its current dominant state — not dismantling the entire system altogether, since such a vision continuously turns out to be an impossible task and renders itself as a project with an already presupposed loss, done for somewhat perverse masochistic pleasures. And after all, we did not have to dismantle the Catholic church altogether to make way for the Reformation. This gesture should in turn provide the Left with a bit more confidence — all we need to do is to start institutions that have appeal to the public that would eventually overthrow the corporate form as the dominant institution. It would again serve well to read Hegel at this point, as many good Marxists do.

Surprisingly this task gets even more simple. Already we have an institution that is growing in popularity, very much against the interest of corporations. Yes, you guessed it: the populist side of Web 2.0 — its P2P networks, free software movements, wiki systems, etc. Steal this Film provides a great documentary on this matter (though I doubt you still need more proof). And although they approved ACTA, I think the matter will continue to be a controversial polemic. As I mentioned in this post, the 21st-century subject needs a new institution, a new system other than global capitalism.

What is to be done? I will not be naive and suggest to continue the piracy and open source usage and so on — I know that we have so much more problems ahead of us — but understanding that we are in a moment of tension in which the Left can fully take advantage of should bring forth some hope and perhaps even a renewed sense of dualistic class (bourgeoisie vs proletariat becomes corporate vs pirates) needed for real social change. As the famous Friedmanite idea often quoted by Naomi Klein, in times of crisis, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” — the best way to read this is not only to be prepared as Klein suggests, but also to produce better ideas ourselves. We have a world to win. Pirates of all countries, unite.

The Censorship of Love

Posted in Posthuman Perversion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Another Žižek-inspired post I’ve been wanting to write for a while now. I could not agree more when, in many occasions, he mentioned that in this age of so-called non-censorship, where everything is practically visible, we become more and more afraid of showing love. Basically, all kinds of sex is OK, as long as it remains detached and emotionless — which is why we have all those stupid narratives which is necessary to every feature porn movie and those strict non-narrative aspect of gonzo. Ever notice how saying “I love you” to a loved one has to be said more and more with a distance as years go by? Either we tend to say it in metaphors, foreign languages, text messages, under the pretext of special occasions… Practically, it’s not only the use of pleasure that’s controlling the society, but also the use of compassion. Obviously, the society of control takes into account how we internalize social hierarchies into our personal emotions, but at certain points it just gets blatant and ironic when critically viewed upon, with taboos surrounding our very personal, microlevel emotions.

Another thing I find interesting: notice how much sex and porn just gets harder to separate as years pass by? I am of course talking about teledildonics and all the discourse and technology surrounding it. So at the same time, we get sex more and more separated from love, and more and more integrated with porn, and at the same time porn gets more and more pervasive and becomes another leisure ideology, casual and daily. On the other hand, marriage becomes more and more of a horrific thing as bad sex leads to bad love. Now here is an irony: sexual revolution was a thing of the sixties with all the “free love” agenda. Sadly, we only took one aspect of the legacy and forgot the rest. We took the practices alone yet enjoyed ideological dominance all the same, if not even more.

Perhaps that is why we tend to find animals, monsters, and robots sexier and sexier by the day. I am seriously suspicious that at least one of the reasons is that they cannot love (yes, I know people who marry those non-human others, but I won’t develop a discussion on that now). They are purely sexual, non-emotional others — cyborg others, if we are to take the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics as any indication of how the cyborg came to be, as Katherine Hayles noted. Cybernetic organisms cannot love. They can only enjoy. As the society of discipline represses sexuality as an animal-like excess of the human, the society of control represses love as a human-like excess of the cyborg.

Let’s admit it, there’s always a weird exhibitionist dimension in social network profile pictures flaunting love that is different from and exceeds those of online porn. It is because our non-loving avatars have become us. The geek typing in front of the monitor is his avatar.