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The Reality of the Virtual: Enacting not Planning Utopia

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The following is an excerpt from the documentary The Reality of the Virtual (2004), featuring a lecture delivered by Slavoj Zizek. The excerpt concerns itself with a contemporary phenomenon where one encounters guilt on not being able to experience enjoyment. This is juxtaposed against a sociohistorical environment where the inverse was true, where one felt guilty about enjoyment. What implications does the same produce for psychoanalysis, social change, and the conception of a utopia?

In the good old days (or so it appears, now it’s clear that it was never something like that) the idea was something like the following: Let’s say you are sexually frustrated because you internalized something paternal or prohibitions, you cannot enjoy sex. The function of psychoanalysis was to relieve you of internalized prohibitions so you can let go of yourself and enjoy. You feel guilty of you transgress social prohibitions in order to enjoy.

Today it is almost opposite, you feel guilty if you cannot enjoy, not just in the immediate sense of sex, drinking, whatever. It can be the enjoyment of power, social success, professional success, it can even be spiritual enjoyment in the new age sense of realizing your ego. Today, we feel guilty if we cannot enjoy ourselves.

This brings us to a double function of psychoanalysis today.

It’s message is not to relax, get rid of your prohibitions. It’s message is you should learn to become a pitiless censor of yourselves. The role of psychoanalysis today is not to enable a space where you can enjoy, it is to open up a space where you are not obliged to enjoy, you are allowed not to enjoy. Which is of course is not the same as saying you are prohibited from enjoying.

This confronts us further with the paradoxes of today’s superego which is how on the one hand permissibility ends up in its opposite. Today, with the drunkenness you enjoy, the result is more prohibitions, regulations than ever. You can enjoy yourself but in order to enjoy yourself properly, you are ordered to what, not to eat too much, to engage in jogging, take care of your fitness, not to smoke, and what not. Look around, I think there is nothing more miserable today than those young couples or people who organize their lives to enjoy themselves, the regulation is total.

On the other hand, we have the opposite paradox which is that the so called newly emerging fundamentalism is not here in order to introduce you to some new stability to give you firm ethical foundation where today in this world there are no firm stable values and so on.

On the contrary, I claim it is here to open up a kind of a false space of freedom, borrowing on Lacan’ts famous reversal. According to Lacan, it is not that God doesn’t exist everything is permitted but if God doesn’t exist everything is prohibited. The opposite lesson no less crucial, if God exists then everything is permitted. If you can justify your role as that of being the instrument of the divine will, in other words, you hear voices and have contact with the guy up there. Either George Bush or Osama Bin Laden, as many people notice, this is what they have in common, they both hear directly from up there. Then you can do whatever you want. You can do terrorist acts, bomb countries, and so on.

Here we see how difficult it is to orient ourselves in today’s constellation where there is a certain urge to false freedom inherent to the system itself which is why I claim the main task today is to reinvent the space of utopia. It is not the old fashioned utopia of imagining the ideal of world which we know in advanced will never be realized, Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s utopia, and of course we should not forget Marquis de Sad’s Philosophy in the Boudoir; that’s the classical utopia.

Then we have what I am tempted to call the capitalist utopia, unbridled solicitation of new desires which can go pretty far. In United States, in some communities they are seriously considering the idea that necrophiliacs want to play sexual games with corpses are seriously deprived. So isn’t it our duty to provide them with corpses, can it be done in the same way that if you die, you sign that if you die, your heart, your organs can be used, that your body can be used to delivered to necrophilliacs and so on

The problem here is that, radical as this may appear, there is something ridiculously benign about it, about this capitalist utopia. You can go to the end basically nothing happens. But we have a third utopia, which is again neither this classical utopia of imagining an alternative universe not even really dreaming about really realizing it. Then, the capitalist utopia of ever new desires, extreme forms of satisfying your desires. There is a third mode, which I would say precisely is the real- the real core of utopia.

I think a truly radical utopia is not an exercise in free imagination like you sit down, don’t have anything wiser to do than to imagine possible ideal world. It’s something that you do literally as out of an inner urge, you have to invent something new when you cannot do it otherwise. True utopia for me is not a matter of the future, it is something to be immediately enacted when there is no other way. Utopia in this sense simply means, do what appears within the given symbolic coordinates as impossible. Take the risk, change the very coordinates.

I’m not talking about something crazy even big classical, well known, even sometimes conservative acts have this utopian dimension. To take a ridiculous example, 30 years ago, remember Nixon’s trip to China- there was almost a utopian dimension to it. Because, he did what appears to be impossible, China was portrayed as the ultimate evil superpower with Soviet Union, that act changed the entire coordinates. It did the impossible.

This is what we need more than ever today. Because ultimately I claim, the true utopia today is not a different order. It is the idea that the existing order can function indefinitiely. The true utopia is not communism which disintegrated in 1980s, it is that of the 90s, the idea elaborated by Franci Fukuayama, we discovered the final social form- liberal capitalist democracy. We cannot go any further. It is just the question of making it more tolerant, spreading it all over the world, but we have the formula. I think that is a symbolic meaning to September 11th is that the time of death utopia is over. The real of history is dead which is why today the earth is not to be terrorized by the so called post political politics which tells us ideological ties are over. All you can do is just play the realistic game of accepting the trends and so on…

We should dare to enact the impossible. We should rediscover how to not imagine but enact utopia. The point is not about planning utopias. The point is about practicing them. This isnot a question of should we do it or should we persist in the exiting order. It is much more radical, it’s a matter for survival.

The future is there will be utopia or there will be none

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