Slavoj Žižek’s conference ‘The Need to Censor Our Dreams’ took place at London School of Economics and Political Science on 11 November 2014. Please find below a summary by Dr Didem Buhari-Gulmez.
Žižek known for his Marxist thinking emphasizes on the structural/systemic forces underlying social crises and protests today. For instance, the cases of gang rapes and women abduction that are currently increasing in India and Mexico point to deeper societal crises caused by social, political and economic inequalities (such as the ‘caste system’). The rise of violence against women in some social contexts is not a number of individual and separate cases of pathology but they are ritualized performances that transmit a message about the prevailing social structure.
According to Žižek, the current paradox we are facing is about our incapability to think out of the box and imagine an alternative social reality. He explains that while technological advances such as biogenetic change the social life and encourage us to think that everything seems possible, we become increasingly unable to change the systemic forces that determine our daily life and worldview. In this sense, even our dreams about an ideal world do reflect the current limitations on our thinking. In Žižek’s words, ‘today, it is much easier to imagine the end of the world than having a 3% decrease in tax’.
During his speech, Žižek puts strong emphasis on the notion of ‘implicit prohibitions’. He argues that the current liberal democratic system has its own prohibitions but limits our expression of the existence of those prohibitions. In this regard, you are free to do anything you want on the condition that you do not commit implicitly prohibited acts. For instance, by giving examples from Hollywood movies such as James Bond, he thinks that modern individual is implicitly prohibited to lose him/herself in love and feel a great passion. Instead, modern individual is assumed to be a consumer: a temporary lover. ‘A one-night stand is acceptable in this system but falling in love –pay attention to the verb “fall”— is unwelcome’. He refers to Judith Butler’s ideas about the need to reconstruct your identity all the time without fixating (or investing) yourself too much on anything as undermining the full experience of living. Žižek argues that: ‘We are so free that we are less and less able to say that we are not free’ and ‘We are less and less able to choose the very frame of choices’. We can choose many things such as our sexual orientation and can travel around the world, but it is almost impossible to change the social context that determines the limited menu of choices that are available to us.
Today’s political systems expect individuals to pretend/act like prohibitions do not exist. In Žižek’s own words: ‘You have a choice, freedom to do that on the condition that you do not use that choice’. Accordingly, we experience ‘extremely controlled subjectivities’; Similar to what Alexis de Tocqueville thought of American society, free individual does not exist; people pretend to be free individuals in light of the myth of free individual advocated by the current political system (Meyer et al 2006). People follow the social ritual or cliché even when they look like they explode (as an expression of anger) or they look like they enjoy their first experience of something. They act in line with what they learnt from the social environment, rather than having the actual capacity to develop an autonomous individuality. This view is also endorsed by John Tomlinson, a renowned globalization scholar who stated that: “We ‘live’ our gender, our sexuality, our nationality, and so forth as publicly institutionalized, discursively organized belongings.”(2003: 273).
Žižek criticizes the current global capitalistic system for both individualizing and culpabilizing us. He argues that the system functions through ‘false individualization’, which tells people to ‘look at themselves rather than blaming the institutions or the system’. This leads people to an ‘endless self-examination’ and feelings of guilt: what did I do for the ecology today? Would people get offended if I use this word or I look directly in their eyes? Am I too insensitive to society’s problems? And so on. According to Žižek, this gradually leads to an ‘ethical cleansing of our dreams’ about the social world. We become incapacitated to be ourselves in terms of making obscene and cynical jokes about for example national stereotypes and making actual contact with one another. Žižek finds the implicit prohibitions on many jokes and acts as a manipulation. Racism does not disappear due to those limitations, it solely becomes more implicit and politically correct.
He thinks that the ruling ideology involves the manipulation of the feelings of guilt in the upper-middle classes. He mentions Starbucks that promises to make donations on behalf of its customers as a good example that shows how the manipulation of guilt works. ‘Your social duty towards nature [or other worldly problems] is included in the price of the commodity you buy’. Hence, you can feel less guilty and continue to be a consumerist at peace. People ‘buy’ this and abandon their agency (or capacity to change things) because no one would want to be always involved in local problems. We rather prefer to have an invisible network making things function for us to continue our daily lives. This means that ‘big events’ like the occupation of the Taksim and Tahrir squares will eventually lose their dynamism and things will return to ‘normal’.
According to Žižek, global capitalism no longer brings modernization to the developing world. It rather goes hand in hand with a discourse about returning to our pre-modern or traditional roots and conservative values (such as the primacy of family and community over the individual). ‘Natural marriage between capitalism and western individual values is dissolving today’. We witness the rise of different forms of capitalism in different parts of the world such as China where capitalism functions better in the absence of democracy. Hence, capitalistic forces do not carry a ‘liberal hedonistic individualist ethics’ to non-Western parts of the world. The ‘post-colonial common-sense’ thinking that the proliferation of local and pre-modern identities in the world derives from the failure of the Western civilization as a global model is misleading: The global spread of capitalism does not mean the destruction of local and traditional cultures; on the contrary, ‘global capitalism has no problem in accommodating plurality of local cultures’. Global capitalism paradoxically reinforces and even radicalizes traditional identities.
The consequence is that we live in an ‘apartheid post-democratic society’ in the sense that there are ‘new forms of apartheid’ (segregation) and the ‘regression of public ethical substance’ (such as the rise of the thesis that democratic rights are not for everybody). In Žižek’s opinion, even Fukuyama –an advocate of liberal democracy— disagrees with his own thesis (End of Ideology) today. For Žižek, the solution remains elusive. Old solutions, Žižek calls ‘old dreams’ (like local cooperatives and the welfare state system) are no longer credible. Direct popular mobilization is highly unlikely and ineffective (its effectiveness is limited to emergency states). The solutions proposed by some scholars like Stiglitz seem modest at first sight but they are in fact overambitious in terms of presupposing a global regulatory authority with the capacity to change the fundamental norms of the current system, which is impossible. Žižek ends his highly inspiring speech by stating that: ‘We need to censor our dreams [that are determined and limited by the current system] and reach point zero [which will allow us to think about the possibility of the impossible]’.
For the audio and video of Žižek’s full speech, please go to the LSE website
Žižek’s new book ‘Trouble in Paradise: Communism after the End of History’ is now on shelves. See London Review of Books for its review.
Meyer, John W., Gili S. Drori, and Hokiyu Hwang (2006) Conclusion. In Gili S. Drori, John W. Meyer, and Hokiyu Hwang (eds.) Globalization and Organization: World Society and Organizational Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tomlinson, John (2003) Globalization and Cultural Identity. In David Held and Anthony McGrew (eds.) The Global Transformations Reader: an Introduction to the Globalization Debate. Cambridge : Polity, p. 269-277.