Monday, 23 March 2009

Quo vadis domine?: Totality and Totalitarianism

Following on the previous post I have been contemplating the relation between political totalitarianism and philosophical totality. Zizek's claim that the two are in an inverse relation, that political totalitarianism corresponds not to philosophical totality, but precisely to contingency and subjectivity, and vice versa - provides an interesting starting point, although I have never heard him elaborate on it much.

The whole point of the totalitarian state apparatus - and any modern state can be said to have components or degrees of it - is to fill a gap in the structure of Power/Knowledge. The state is afraid and is constituted by fear: its law must be enforced because it is not believed in; it must be obeyed because it is not 'in the hearts of men' (to use Rousseau's phrase).

The state has no traffic with philosophical truth, therefore it must acquire knowledge or 'intelligence' by purely technical means (surveillance, CCTV, phone-tapping, etc). It does not know its citizens, and therefore must spy on them; it registers no knowing, and therefore must force knowledge to come to it. An absolutist, totalitarian state cannot be beholden to any absolute philosophical truth or totality or absolute law, since that would appear to suggest that there is something above the state, an absolute law or truth that even the absolute ruler must obey. On the contrary, the only truth of a truly absolute, totalitarian state are the subjective whims and contingencies of the absolute ruler's will.

The state is afraid and does not trust its citizens, nor can it gain their trust any longer; it must resort to technical means of control (walls, fences, barriers, prisons), and technical manipulation; it must make threats and regulations and enforce its judgments.

It goes without saying that in the process of all this surveillance and regulation and control, in the process of protecting itself from 'terror', the state commits far greater wrongs, invasions and violations than are ever committed against it. But even at its most totalitarian/technocratic it hardly aspires to philosophical truth, or totality. Even its belief in itself is deeply cynical.

It is no coincidence that one of the earliest rebels against what could in an abstract sense be called 'the state' was a fragile being who feared nothing and was nailed to a cross; who confronted the Roman Empire not with contingency and subjectivity, but with an absolute philosophical totality: 'God as love' or the 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

To the Roman Empire Jesus says: your power is of this world - temporary, subjective, contingent; behind me is a power far greater, a totality which is the origin of all creation.

The political message is clear: Caesar is not divine. Give unto caesar that which is Caesar's; give unto God that which is God's: in historical context, the effect of this subversive message dressed up as political obedience is - if anything - drawing a line in the sand, putting up a barricade: 'NO PASARAN'. An act of resistance and an act of will, a violent separation. Caesar: historical contingency. God: absolute totality.

As Godard puts it in L'Origine du XXIème siècle (quoting Bergson I think), "Nothing conflicts more with the image of the beloved than that of the state...The state in no way possesses, or it has lost, the power to embrace before our eyes the totality of the world, that totality of the universe offered externally via the loved one as object, and internally via the lover as subject."

There is a kernel of truth in Monty Python's legendary parody of the crucifixion in Life of Brian where, nailed to the cross, the Jewish convicts sing the ditty 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.' This refrain effectively sums up Jesus' political message, which offers both hope and empowerment to a wholly disempowered people: there is always another side, always a way out, one can always subvert/rerout the game and turn the table on Empire, turn a weakness into a strength, and set up the antagonism without falling back on the negative, without being drawn into the pit of open confrontation. One can always win, even when one loses - by taking up one's burden and willing it all backwards - or as Nietzsche has it, by turning every 'it was' into an 'I willed it thus' (J. returns to Rome to be crucified again). To turn one's own punishment for disobedience into just another gesture of defiance: "Ah, so you think you've got me there, ey? But I wanted to be crucified, you fools!"

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