Awareness as a Decaffeinated Political Act

AIDS awareness

AIDS awareness

Within the past couple of years, the notion of what we can do to help society, of what a political act means, has changed significantly. Just a couple of days ago we had World AIDS Day, the international day of HIV awareness. One thing that interests me is how “awareness” has become elevated into one of the primary good things we can do, politically and socially. Campaigns today have to be marketed as made more to “raise awareness” than to, say, change real political acts. There is always a necessity today to let all people “take part” by doing very small things (“if you have one minute”, etc.) — perhaps to make us believe that we live in a democracy while keeping the violent kernels of real politics untouched and, often, unquestioned.

It is of course true that ignorance, lack of information, and plain stupid unawareness is a terrible thing, and I am by no means supportive of perpetrating such matters. But it is also crucial to be critical of these injunctions and question the horizons of understanding that underlie their motives. To put it shortly: what do we mean when we say that we are aware? Aware of what, exactly?

Of course, some awareness will lead to good, significant action: in the recent World AIDS Day, people who raise awareness of course hope that more people will visit the free HIV-testing centers, and so on. This kind of action needs a special day, and a special event to raise awareness. This disclaimer being said, I still claim that the standard protest that awareness is not enough, that we need more action, however, is out of place.

Let us take, for example, the problem of climate change. Do we really know how to handle it properly? What will raising awareness of climate change do? The nightmare is not for nobody to be not aware of anything, and then we suddenly plunge into a global disaster. The true nightmare for me is that everybody will be aware of it, stop using plastic bags, etc., and that the disaster still happens nonetheless — because the big players know nothing (or were not serious, due to corruption, “corporatism”, etc.) about how to handle it properly. The true nightmare of AIDS is not a nightmare of negligence (although, of course, it is always horrific to see people dying of AIDS just because they did not check early enough); it is when everybody is aware of it, there remains an entire continent with an epidemic we cannot cure, even with Bono’s RED, the ONE campaign, etc.

Is this not the same injunction we have behind all the Facebook Causes? We effectively join to let people (actually, the Lacanian big Other) aware that we are aware of a certain cause, while of course the implicit promise is that we do not have to do anything real. Awareness (and joining Facebook Causes) is a political act without real politics — we get the credit for it, but we don’t have to really do anything tiring, dangerous, dirty, etc. — a decaffeinated political act, as Žižek would put it.

So, how can we really help? Again a Žižekian thesis, perhaps the best way to change is not to take any action at all. Perhaps the best way to start a real change is to expose our true predicament: how everyone is already ambiently aware of all the problems in the world, but nonetheless we know nothing of what exactly are we to do. In World AIDS Day, despite all the pretty ribbons we are wearing, we still have all the elementary questions of whether stopping the AIDS epidemic in Africa is possible at all with our current state of rampant global capitalism.

We do not need more awareness — we need more questions that ask, “What are we actually aware of?” questions that force all of us to stop and think, and think hard, of the state of things. Perhaps, rather, the best thing to do is to stop all action and call for awareness and expose us to the sheer vacuity and cluelessness of our age, despite all the noisily marketed awareness and little local actions.


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