ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)
Author: Brett Conway
Review of: Slavoj Žižek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London: Verso, 2002.

The day after I read Slavoj Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real, I attended a showing of Neil Young’s rock and roll movie Greendale, a portrait of post-9/11 America. I remember seeing a Neil Young concert in Edmonton in early 1991 during his “Ragged Glory” tour, a tour that coincided with the Gulf War. Neil, libertarian and Reagan supporter, had begun his show by tying a yellow ribbon to a microphone stand and saluting it. The audience went crazy. “We must support the troops,” we yelled about a war half a world away. As I pondered the coming film, I read these lines from Žižek’s book:

This is the dilemma of Cultural Studies: will they stick to the same topics, directly admitting that their fight against oppression is a fight within First World capitalism’s universe – which means that, in the wider conflict between the Western First World and the outside threat to it, one should reassert one’s fidelity to the basic American liberal-democratic framework? Or will they risk taking the step into radicalizing their critical stance; will they problematize this framework itself?.1

On my way to see Greendale, I wondered what Neil Young’s new project would say about the War on Terror: would he support or criticize American anti-terrorism policies or would he do something more radical?

Žižek’s book has a lot to say about the war on terror, specifically about how the abstraction of fear, of terror, has become something we can touch and feel and how mere individuals have come to embody absolute good or absolute evil. It shows how the Kantian a priori category of objects has been blurred by those who want what is noumenal to become phenomenal or what is phenomenal to become noumenal. It also prescribes radical acts to upset the simple binaries that supporters and pursuers of this war utilize to make their case. More than that, it gives Zizek’s readers, whether new or old, an accessible introduction to his philosophy. For the neophyte trauma theorist, there will be no more melancholic struggling through The Sublime Object of Ideology and For They Know Not What They Do to gain a sense of Žižek’s thought: The Desert of the Real offers a concise and clear introduction to one of the most important thinkers of our time, a convincing interpretation of the War on Terror, and a means to overcoming this so-called war by bridging the gap between self and Other.

Žižek’s introduction, “The Missing Link,” explores two terms we have heard a lot in the last few years, terms we usually hear in opposition: “fundamentalism” and “democracy.” But rather than exploring their differences, this chapter deconstructs them: “all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict – ‘war on terrorism’, ‘democracy and freedom’, ‘human rights’, and so on – are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it”.2 This chapter attempts to give us the means to think through these terms, allowing us to move beyond mere binary thinking.

“Passion of the Real, Passions of Semblance” continues to examine binaries. It focuses on the distinction between the event and mere spectacle. Žižek uses Cuba and the USA to illustrate: “In Cuba, revolutionary mobilization conceals social stasis; in the developed West, frantic social activity conceals the basic sameness of global capitalism, the absence of an event”.3   Without presence, without an event, Americans fail to understand the other; they fail in what Jacques Lacan calls “traversing the fantasy”.4 “Traversing the fantasy” is a complement to “reality.” It involves embracing and identifying with the unknowable within us. It is an acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge but a search for those very limits, a quest for the trauma at the heart of human subjectivity. If we fulfill this identification, if we wade through the fantasy, we are no longer afraid or unable to bear witness to trauma: “we should therefore accept the paradox that, in order really to forget an event, we must first summon up the strength to remember it properly”.5  If we don’t, we are merely giving in to consumer culture, to empty activity, to “keeping up appearances”.6

Because “appearances” seem to be everything in Western culture, tangible reality has been kicked to one side. In “Reappropriations: the Lesson of Mullah Omar,” Žižek argues that very real events like the WTC attacks have been used to turn both terrorists and wars into abstractions. “The terrorists are turned into an irrational agency – abstract in the Hegelian sense of subtracted from the concrete socio-ideological network which gave birth to it”.7 If the enemies have lost corporality and have become abstractions, how can war be waged? Žižek says war is still being waged but on a different plain of reality. We are not engaged in “warfare” per se, but “paranoiac warfare”,8 combat that may or may not involve an enemy, battles with enemies who may or may not have weapons. This paranoia results from the “shattering experience” of September 119 becoming an abstraction calling for another abstraction: “‘Infinite Justice’”.10  But the people experiencing this war, like the victims and family members of victims of September 11, are not abstract, but concrete. Therefore, Žižek argues, the only way to show our moral disgust with terrorist attacks and the so-called war on terror, “the only appropriate stance is unconditional solidarity with all victims” of terrorist attacks and the War on Terror.11  That is to say, instead of identifying with abstractions of Otherness such as good and evil, we should listen to the stories told by victims of violence, for they are not abstractions, but solid, physical: they are human.

In “Happiness after September 11,” Žižek deconstructs happiness. “Happiness,” he argues, is “inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we do not really want”.12 Paradoxically, the knowledge that comes from, for example, disrupting binary thinking, destroys this happiness and makes us unhappy. But while the passive nature of happiness allows us “to keep up appearances”,13 the activity of seeking knowledge allows us to see through appearances and discourse. Therefore, understanding and knowledge are not stable but disruptive categories. They are not passive but active, involving “an infinite task of translation”.14  This translation occurs in the presence of an individual, of an other. To achieve universality, “the actual universality”, is not to know the individual, for a priori “always in him or her there is the Absolute of the impenetrable abyss of another person”15 but to know “the violent experience of how, across the cultural divide, we share the same antagonisms”.16  Translation can bridge the difference between self and other; however, we generally fail to translate and instead remain happy. We still consume, we still respond to terror warnings, making us not “homo sapiens” but “homo suckers”: “this is how we are believers today – we make fun of our beliefs, while continuing to practice them”.17 In order to approach an other, in order to achieve understanding and universality, we must make a leap of faith rather than mouth a Beckett-like “Oh, happy days.”

“From Homo Sucker to Homo Sacer” explores the changing role of subject and object in our culture, underlining our inability to confront others and to let go of happiness. Žižek lays the blame for this impotence on globalized consumer culture. “The ultimate result of global subjectivization is not that ‘objective reality’ disappears, but that our subjectivity itself disappears, turns into a trifling whim, while social reality continues its course”.18 We are no longer custodians of our ethical subjectivity. We have abandoned transcendent causes for which we are willing to die, thus the only casualty in the war on terror becomes “actual life itself”,19 becomes the authentic ethical act.

In “From Homo Sacer to the Neighbour,” Žižek explores the shifting ground between homo sacer, or outcast, and the neighbour. He describes how the outcast can become the neighbour through his tormentor acting ethically. Citing a case of a group of Israeli soldiers refusing to kill Palestinians, he argues that this group’s refusal is not an exception to the rule that a democracy-lover must fight terror but “an authentic ethical act”.20 Rather than turning these Palestinians into abstractions, into personifications of terror itself, the group responds to their physical being as humans, as neighbours. “We should be unashamedly Platonic here: this ‘No!’ designates the miraculous moment in which eternal Justice momentarily appears in the temporary sphere of empirical reality”.21 Žižek telescopes beyond this example to show how acts of terror have been misunderstood, for they are often used as means, albeit misguided ones, to achieving social justice: “‘capitalism without capitalism’, without the excesses of individualism, social disintegration, relativization of values, and so on”.22  Instead of the free flow of capital – capitalism – they assert the movement of care and the notion of community among people – socialism.

Welcome to the Desert of the Real concludes with a chapter called “the Smell of Love.” Summing up, Žižek argues that we in the West have abandoned our absolutes and are without an event to anchor identities to a cause; we have lost presence, and our psyches are lacking positive content. Instead we have the image; we have Baudrillard’s simulacrum. We are then in a dangerous position: “the noumenal dimension (of the free subject) appears in empirical reality itself,” but “it is the witness of what one cannot bear witness to”.23 Without an event, we have no identity, no egos, but ids and superegos instead.24 What can we do to reclaim an ego? What does Žižek prescribe? A Kierkegaardian leap of faith, a devilish rebellion against our contemporary ideology of changing the noumenal into the phenomenal: a “radical political Act as the way out of this democratic deadlock”,25 a phenomenon, an act that will clear the noumenal gossamer from our path.

How one is to commit such an act without being absorbed by the language of the anti-terror machine Žižek never makes clear.  However, Žižek wants an authentic act, and I think I bore witness to one. This act was in Neil Young’s Greendale, a film that shows how the War on Terror is not half a world away and how the media manipulates individual tragedy to turn the noumenal into the phenomenal. The film recounts a fictional Californian family dealing with the intrusion of the War on Terror into its life. After a young relative kills a police officer, “grandpa” discovers his family is suspected of being terrorists because they own guns and army fatigues. The media descend on his home, believing they found the heart of a homegrown terror network. They have seen the terror made flesh. “Grandpa,” a simple country guy, understood what was going on immediately: “someone has taken pure bullshit and turned it into gold,” he sings. In a Žižekian sense, this line means someone has taken spectacle and turned it into profit, or someone has taken an abstraction of the mind and as soon as a television camera focuses on “grandpa’s” property and a disembodied voice on the airwaves announces “terror,” made it phenomenal. Additionally, by using images in the Middle East, the film may have fulfilled Žižek’s mandate: it abstracts from grandpa’s situation and translates it to show the plight of all victims on the war on terror, thereby challenging the very framework of the war and, as Žižek suggests, allowing us to identify with all victims, whether in the Middle East or America. To answer Žižek’s question in the first paragraph, perhaps at this time with films like The Corporation, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Greendale in theaters and on DVD, the objects of cultural studies are already responding to his challenge, undermining the mainstream framework for defining terror, prescribing authentic acts that destabilize President Bush’s false dilemma of good or evil, and making the job for us cultural studies folk much easier.

About the Author:
Brett Conway is from the English Department, University of Ottawa, Canada


1 – Slavoj Žižek.  Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London: Verso, 2002:49.