Archive for ideology

What is a Good Twitter Neighbor?

Posted in Postmodern 2.0 with tags , , , , , , , on December 11, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
The Twitter village

The Twitter village

As the Web becomes more and more social, as more and more people write how Twitter is a village, we are bound to confront the radical dimension of social interaction, the neighbor in its most elementary form: digital denizens of cyberspace who have “something in them more than themselves” — those whose dimension of enjoyment we could not grasp nor fathom.

In the physical realm, we have all the elementary practices by which we talk about a neighbor: the way they laugh too loudly, the way they count their money, their strange accent, the bad smell of their food, their disgusting table manners, etc, all of which allude to an irreducible kernel of an Other that enjoys differently from us. This dimension, is, of course, the object a, the Lacanian object-cause of desire which arouses spectral apparitions and is the cause of all our prejudices and hatred towards Otherness.

It is interesting to see how this dimension of a neighbor persists even without real contact (the examples above are all little habits that could be seen, smelled, or heard — all needing physical contact). Does not the current trends of categorizing obnoxious people on the Web the ultimate proof that we are very much still prejudiced? OK, it might be a matter of fact that trolls and Grammar Nazis are frustrating idiots without proper knowledge of the big Other of the Internet, but upon reading things like this Top 10 List of People to Unfollow on Twitter or this list of 8 Most Obnoxious Internet Commenters, it becomes clear how social antagonisms in the Social Web is beginning to take its shape.

My point is of course not the standard postmodern multicultural (“defender”) one that demands for more equality for these different types, and so on. (Again, it is funny when we notice how demands for more equality in the physical world is supplemented — and, likely, can only work as such — by the proliferation of online prejudices.) What I would like to call into question is the basic underlying understanding of what being a good citizen means.

There are exceptions, but there is a strong pattern emerging: we tend to find obnoxious those who affiliates too much with his or her beliefs and activities, be it sports, (cynical) politics, plain hobbies, or even attending a conference. If, in the physical world, to use Žižek’s formulation, the neighbor is the one who smells (which is why deodorants are increasingly popular, etc.), in life online, the neighbor is essentially the one who believes.

As the Internet becomes more and more social, the big Other of networked computer systems is born. And the cyborg big Other is the virtual entity for whom we must maintain a safe distance from our own believes and passions, the digital symbolic for which we have to maintain the appearances of disbelief, by tweeting our more “human” side (what we had for lunch, our travels, our day job, etc.) instead. As always, there is an inherent rule which we must understand to fit inside an online community; the obligations behind choices (we are obliged to follow our followers back) and the choice behind the obligations (we can use scripts to follow people or schedule our tweets). A good cyberspace denizen is the one that understands the proper mechanisms of the digital big Other.

Perhaps, even here today, Kierkegaard was right: the only good neighbor is effectively the dead neighbor — the best Twitter accounts are the automated ones who do nothing personal but give links to worthy pieces of information. The good Twitter neighbor is the impersonal cyborg neighbor, the neighbor without the kernel of unfathomable surplus-enjoyment. But then, we need enjoyment for systems to function, which is why we are all suggested to have smiling face photo avatars and occasional talk about the kids and dinner — the legitimized versions of object a as the proper way to enjoy, with all its encoded ideologies.

The Dora Democracy

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Dora the Explorer

Dora the Explorer

Our democracy today feels more and more like a derivation of the popular children’s show Dora the Explorer. The reason for this is clear: note how Dora interacts with the children as though they really have a role to play. Recall her catchphrase, in her awfully cute voice: “We could not have done it without your help!” — does this not echo our ironic presupposed faith today that our false democracy could not be possible without our help? In fact, as the show, it very well is possible.

The irony, of course, does not stop there. Are we not actually aware that there is something very wrong with democracy, as the viewers of Dora are aware that they are only playing games with the show (ask any children, they are not idiots)? The problem is thus not that our democracy is a false one, but how we react to the fact as such. Like watching Dora, the falseness of democracy itself seems to me to become more and more of a mere spectacle to today’s society — part of the entertainment comes from assuming that other subjects really believe in the spectacle. The problem is not that the show is purely a fake — if anything, we prefer fakes, in more senses than one — but that we view ourselves as subjects supposed to enjoy instead of active political agents, the latter replaced by a fantasy of subjects supposed to believe, i.e. the presupposed other children with whom Dora and Boots would not have made it past the three obstacles.

Let us go a little bit deeper and notice how cursors play a significant role in the show: Dora the Explorer introduces children to cyberculture. But at the same time, recall it’s message: your interaction is merely a fake (even in the games, I would argue, that take the form of non-avatarial play, but I will not develop that here) but nevertheless you must enjoy this fakeness! Topped with other warning messages in original DVDs and the now popular anti-piracy curriculum for kids, it seems that we are never supposed to actually play an active role in what seems to be an interactive realm.

I’m not putting up a case against Dora specifically here — in fact I actually like the show — but what I intend to bring into light here is that we should never dismiss the inherent ideologies that cultural artifacts for children play, despite its apparent cuteness and political correctness (the Hispanic Dora, etc.). If anything, we should not reject the conservative Right’s incessant ramblings of “What are they teaching children these days?” but instead turn the question around against them.

On Political vs. Oriental Islamism

Posted in Political Focus with tags , , , , , , on August 29, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

A specter is haunting the majority of Indonesia: the specter of the political Islam. The worldwide claims that Islam is a peaceful religion that is now only perverted by minority followers intent on crashing planes to tall buildings could not have had a warmer welcome from inside the Muslim world themselves — “Blame it on the oppressive political authorities of Islam for all our governmental failure and stigmatization as the international enemy! We are not wrong, we are never wrong, it is only because our teachings have been perverted so much that we fail to create an ideal world!” If anything, the September 11th attacks does not destroy hope for Muslims to learn that they are peaceful religions — on the contrary, the tragedy precisely spurred the hopeful movement of finding “a deeper meaning” to the religion of Muhammad (much like how Stalinist catastrophe saved the Marxist communist utopia in the Žižekian reading).

Tension is ripe as days go by, as the (minority) militant strain of Islam are getting more and more harsh words in the form of both criticisms or outright verbal attacks to their modes and motives from the (majority) of peaceful Muslims. As movements are coming from around the world to reassert the identity of Islam as a “peaceful religion,” at the same time more and more warnings are coming from inside the Muslim world itself to not let its followers get “too political,” as religion is only a “personal means” of spirituality and that we should nevertheless focus more on “peaceful coexistence”. Islam gets deeply personalized, and shouts of “everything I do is a form of my worship towards Allah” can be heard almost anywhere we prick our ears in the Muslim world. Does this condition not precisely echo the current trend of Oriental wisdom in the West and elsewhere?

If the current trend teaches that Eastern mysticism (you should not want too much for yourself, etc.) is important in business (i.e. that you will get more by precisely denying that you want more), how does the personalization of Islam play out in the Muslim politics? Does the same logic not hold true, i.e. you should not get too political in Islam because the only way to win is to forge allies with the winning Western liberal-capitalist democracy? The current “liberal Islam” call for apparent non-politics is precisely its opposite: it is a call to fully support the current dominant political ideology as perfect passive consumers who make minor product corrections (“religion is only for daily moral corrections,” etc.) but should never think of conducting a revolution (“we should attempt for slow revolution,” etc.).

This is precisely how one should read the September 11th attacks (and the stigmatization of Islam that follow — “Islamophobia,” etc.) as an event that saves the Muslim world: it does so by producing a radical, blatant cut in the middle of Islam. One one side, we have the militant/political (I must point here that it is wrong to call them outright “terrorists”) Islam (Al-Qaeda, JI, HT, FPI, etc.) and on the other side the peaceful/non-political Islam (JIL, and many others, including the “false-but-at-least-not-political” Ahmadiyah, etc.) who are now free to point one another as a scapegoat of the tragic Muslim failures and melancholies in the past and today. Each side could not be happier — they can go on without having to feel guilty about anything!

One is tempted to ask here, what would have happened if this split were not produced? Perhaps it would be a disaster for Islam — it would be trapped in a limbo between the political legacies of Muhammad and the tension from global capitalism to adapt as passive consumers, a limbo of ideological guilt and dilemma… The split is thus an inevitable move, and inevitable impact of global capitalism on Islam, its internal war of political (“fundamentalist”,”militant”, etc.) versus Oriental (“liberal”,”spiritual”, etc.) Islam already a second-degree of the true tension between Islam and global capitalism.

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.

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.