Lecture Response: Slavoj Zizek @ Birkbeck, University of London. 10/11/2014

Yesterday morning, the Drone Philosophical (in its human guise) attended a lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, from the Slovenian ‘pop-philosopher’ Slavoj Žižek[i]. The lecture did not directly address drones, but raised a number of more general political-philosophical ideas which are relevant or applicable. Given Žižek’s famed tendency to veer randomly from topic to topic (in his books, as well as in person), the thoughts are brief, but they are strong enough to be drawn upon and expanded into deeper explorations. At the start of the lecture, Žižek produces a very interesting notion. He says that the very act of allowing debate on the permissibility of torture – even when it is frequently reiterated throughout that debate that torture is not permissible – in itself normalises the idea of torture. Žižek seems to find this normalisation of ideas more worrying than their reality; that is, the reality that numerous states do carry out torture. In a sense then, Žižek feels that the most worrying trend is not the continuation of secret torture, but the increasing politicisation of its idea. This is a politicisation which comes with the growing knowledge of the public concerning the secret reality – the movement of torture from a secret secret to an open secret – so, oddly, it is not secrecy, but transparency, which is the danger. The difficult point is that this seems to imply that secrecy, or even ignorance, is positive. For this to not be the case then, we would need to identify a certain kind of transparency, a certain method by which inhuman acts such as torture currently enter the realm of knowledge. The currently predominant method normalises torture, as Žižek argues, by entering it into the context of a debate, a forum in which arguments for both sides are put forward. But what I would add is that it enters a forum of consensus; a forum in which everyone agrees that torture is unacceptable. Arguments for both sides are indeed put forward, but no one actually argues in favour of torture. There may be plenty of Devil’s advocates, but no devil, in such a debate. Take the BBC’s Question Time for example, in which you will notice that every member of the panel, whatever their political allegiance, begins their answer to the question of torture, civilian deaths, or any number of other similarly inhuman acts, with a generic statement of their personal and political disagreement with the act. But, if everyone makes this same statement, then what does it mean? If anything, does not the fact that they still feel the need to state the obvious – not to mention the fact that the audience still feel the need to applaud the obvious – imply an underlying and oppositional motive? In other words, if all are agreed in their disagreement with torture, and yet it is nonetheless repeatedly chosen as a subject for debate on shows such as this, then what purpose or effect does such a forum really have on the views of the listeners? In my opinion, the effect is most likely to be a mixture of boredom and self-congratulation. “We are all opposed to torture. Well done us”. Except of course, what usually emerges after this statement of the obvious is a real debate – with disagreements this time – over the technicalities, legal and moral, of torture. We have established, with ease, a rule: torture is unacceptable. But what shall we do with the rest of the show? What is left to do apart from argue about the ‘what’ and the ‘when’. First: what really counts as ‘torture’? And, second: when, given that torture is unacceptable, and yet exists (and is committed by liberal democracies), is torture in fact acceptable? The very establishing of the rule here facilitates exceptions to it. Rules truly are made to be broken. Žižek’s brief conclusion was that things such as these should not (need to) be debated, but if we leave the point at this simple level, I feel personally that we betray or rule out entirely the radical principle of violent disagreement, or what Jacques Rancière calls ‘dissensus’[ii] – a principle with which I suspect Žižek would, at least at a very fundamental level, agree. It is for me not debate itself, but the fact that the debate is simulated, that ends up lending a creeping legitimacy to acts of torture. The nature of the forum presents itself as an open democratic space in which the moral principle of torture is debated – “should we torture, or not?” – but really it is a forum which, from its very outset, has already accepted the reality – “torture is happening” – and thus its purpose is to answer the question of “why”, then broken down into ‘what’ and ‘when’. Such a focus on explaining the reality amounts to a ‘how’: “how does torture happen?”. Or, further, “how can torture happen?” Put otherwise, the purpose of the debate on torture is precisely to answer the question of how we can legitimise/facilitate the torture that does, inevitably, happen. The whole process, from the statement of morality at the top of the show, is one of discarding that morality; of finding exceptions to it. It is the movement from morality to reality or technicality. Where morality and reality are in contradiction to one-another, it is reality; ‘the way things are’, which must be favoured. Normalisation and the Drone How, you are probably asking, does all the above relate to the drone that is the subject of my blog? It is quite simple: like torture, the extrajudicial killing of terror suspects, whom sit on a blurred definitional boundary with non-combatant civilians, is an open secret that sits outside international law and, I would argue, outside moral/ethical standards as defined by the states (such as the US, the UK, and Israel) and publics which nevertheless conduct or tolerate the conduction of the act. The extreme lack of accountability in the campaigns of drone surveillance, bombing, and targeted assassination in Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan by various governments and their agencies is, I think, in part maintained by their open secret status, and by the form of debate whereby it is not the principles themselves, but their technicalities – the exceptions to the rule – which are contested. The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben[iii] has said that the law functions via exceptions to itself, and has warned that the present liberal-democratic politics is one of permanent exception. This theory remains controversial, but it is surely fair to say that, owing to the tendency for western democracies to not only claim, but in fact presume their own moral values, moral principles go undebated and in fact may be discarded in favour of technical arguments over the definition of legitimate exceptions, explanations, and excuses. What needs to be questioned is the moral fabric itself. If we state that we think torture and unlawful killing are unacceptable, but then go on to facilitate their continuation, should we really be allowed to make the first statement? [i] Žižek, S. ‘Freedom – For Whom? To Do What?’. Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London. 10.11.2014. [ii] See Rancière, J. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. (2003). London & New York: Continuum. [iii] See Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception. University of Chicago Press.


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