Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: William Purcell
As I put the finishing touches on this essay about the G20 and its conference in Pittsburgh in 2009, the Australian Herald Sun (July 12, 2012) has posted an article about the possible use of full body scans for commuters during the planned G20 conference in Brisbane in 2014, a practice modeled on commuter scans deployed in China. The alternative to the body scans would be to shut down the downtown commuter system entirely, as was done in Pittsburgh in 2009.
While the purpose of the moveable G20 conferences (Washington D.C. 2008, London and Pittsburgh 2009, Toronto and Seoul 2010, Cannes 2011, Los Cabos 2012) is presumably to highlight the global sensitivities of international economic management, the actual visitation tends to reenact the stalemated ideology of security versus terror – the G20 apparatus arrives in its chosen locale as a form of artificially maintained exotica, at home nowhere except in the rarified air of a permanent state of exception. Popular discourse, popular dissent, indeed the very presence of the people is suppressed because of the shadow of terror. Public body of democratic theory becomes eclipsed by the incandescent schema of a body scan.
Perhaps the public is already a ghost presence. And the display of global military and police force concentrated on a evacuated locality is truly an end-of-the-worldish display of asymmetry. History seems arrested in this monolithic show of force, events suspended in the effect of a false ending.
Los Cabos is a luxury resort at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, surrounded by water and desert, already an artificial environ immune to the calamities of abject poverty and the neoliberal war on drugs and migrant workers. Nonetheless it was made safe for the G20 by massive air, naval, ground and police forces. Los Cabos was virtually inaccessible to the public. Dissenters resorted to gathering in La Paz and Mexico City to appear feebly on the screens of Los Cabos. Perhaps we should be encouraged by the fact that business leaders were admitted to Los Cabos and held their own parallel summit, termed the B20, to make sure that the views of the private sector were properly represented to the mobile global palace.
The G20 conference came to Pittsburgh for a week in September, 2009. The arrival of the conference was first of all the arrival of an idea, of an imagined scene, of an imaginary based upon the ideology of globalism, replete with what might be termed it’s shadow – not a counter-ideology, not a true opposition, and not even so much a site or spasm of internal conflict, rather a projection of the same ideology at the margins of its daylight, an evil to oppose and support the good, without which the good would collapse or be shown to have no identity, no face. All this arrived before the actual apparatus of festival. This evil was the dark force of terror.
When Fukuyama (2006) proclaimed the end of history, he equated history with an agon of ideologies. History ended in the final triumph of free market democracies over totalitarian states. This triumph could be shown, according to Fukuyama, not only in the sense of Darwinian fitness – the free market democracies were more dynamic, more vital, and stronger, but also in the sense of the ethical superiority of ‘universal’ Enlightenment values. For Fukuyama, ours was a fortunate, perhaps most fortunate of worlds, in which Darwinian fitness coincided with the good and the ethical.
Fukuyama essentially announces the doctrine of asymmetrical conflict. In the ethical dimension this implies a conflict between a legitimate side and an illegitimate side. History has already decided the outcome. History becomes a teleology of this fortunate convergence between ethics and power. History ends in a messianic age, in a final suspension of history. History, looked back upon, becomes a sequence of catastrophes charged with messianic hope. No longer present but recollected. History ends in an arrival, in a settling of accounts.
In 2009 Pittsburgh had become a model city in the quest to survive the demise of industrialism and become something new and postmodern and global: a city whose new identity lay in the merging of education with job training, a massive corporate healthcare industry, and a high tech nexus concerned chiefly with artificial intelligence, robotics, and energy production. This could be seen as an example of the passing of the industrial/mechanical into the age of digital information and prosthetics. In the mechanical age, the meaning and limits of a machine were circumscribed by an opposition between the animate and the inanimate, or the human being opposed to the industrial machine. This opposition maintained the fragile singularity and singular value of the human.
Already in the industrial age the symbiotic fit between the industrial machine and the human worker had begun to blur and undermine the distinction between the two terms. In the digital and prosthetic age, the distinction is perhaps lost entirely, and it becomes far more difficult to maintain a sense of singularity and singular value of the human. Just as the current age can be called post-historical in the loss of a dialectical opposition of events and ideologies, so has it been called post-human in the loss of an ethical opposition of the human and the inhuman.
This loss of negativity, this loss of unreality in the profluence of the real, lies at the heart of Baudrillard’s critique of the post-modern. The fictions and hyper-realities of the G20 as it arrived in Pittsburgh in 2009 seemed to suggest the peculiarly static destabilization of these asymmetries – the unsheathing of a post-human, post-historical power within the fiction of a messianic arrival. This is the digital and the prosthetic age wobbling against a nameless absence. The human becomes ghostly, celebrated yet unmourned. Dead, yet recognized as alive.
The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep (Debord, 2000).
Left less visible in the city’s marketing was an equally salient signal of the postmodern and the global: the division of Pittsburgh into adjoining first and third worlds, the gap between them widening to ever greater dimensions in wealth, education, and opportunity. The inner-city ghetto and the suburb: each a laboratory of development and social architecture, but to different ends. Pittsburgh’s depressed and isolated inner city neighborhoods, the Hill District, the North Side, and a handful of communities in the city and near suburbs lay on the other side of the global. This other side of the global might be called oblivion, to judge by its absence in the presentation of the city to the world. The problems here were familiar – rampant gun violence, failed schools, de facto racial segregation, drug warfare, failed health services, failed employment market. If the G20 Festival was a collective dream of the future, then clearly the inner-city ghetto was expected somehow to vanish, to drop out of real-time and leave no trace of itself. This might be termed the violence of exclusion by wish fulfillment, and it mirrors the neoliberal ideology of globalism: what we do not wish to think about will not exist in the spectacle of the future present.
The ghetto is one of many perforations in the global surface through which the entire pneumatic structure breathes and equalizes pressure. It is a permissible habitation of Agamben’s bare life: life stripped of economic rights, political rights, and political meaning, yet enlisted by the system to provide a continuing mythology of the negative, the transgressive, the violent, and the tribal psychopathic, though it might be pointed out that these qualities can be found in their original but hidden form among the global managers themselves.
The future imagined by this festival has no negative: a utopian future, a lie. The entire festival depends upon a progression of disappearances, some enforced by security, others by censorship, and others still by the conversion of the proscribed object into an abject symptom of hysteria – the rumor of terror. The utopian vision depends covertly on the belief that there is evil in the world. The collective assent of the G20 depends on the massive deployment of security forces and the denied demarcation of community boundaries according to race and class and legal status. Perhaps history has ended within the global sphere, as it typically ends in most bureaucracies, in a dementia of process and power. But history afflicted by the disowned negativity of the global, a history of real events possessing the dimensions of tragedy, continues on the other side of the global.
We might regard these traveling G20 conferences as the operation and execution of a fundamental global conceit: the desire of power to be everywhere, to demonstrate the ability to occupy any terrain. In this the G20 conference comprises something like an airborne biosphere, a rarefied atmosphere of survival and strategic control that is both mobilized and hermetically sealed, on tour in a toxic landscape.
The effect in Pittsburgh of the G20 arrival was not that of a feast or celebration, nor of the promised economic boom or blessing, nor even of the emergence of a theater of protest and discourse. The effect was rather more like that of an invasion, conducted in the usual manner of massive police and storm trooper deployment. This was the translation of the shock and awe doctrine to a domestic scene within the global empire. Imposed silence on one side of the discourse, imposing spectacle on the other. But the invasion was also subtler and more pervasive display of power, hegemonic, in the sense that Baudrillard uses the term. The invading sovereign power seemed to disappear into a matrix that was everywhere, and nowhere. The city came to resemble a holograph of its post-apocalyptic double. It streets and buildings were emptied. Barricades were erected across public spaces. No one came in or out. Normal activity ceased. The downtown area had neither pedestrians nor traffic nor even parked cars. This was a radical vision of Agamben’s perpetual state of exception, concentrated on an allegedly signal city of globalism as it intersected the G20 orbit.
The shadow within these images was the hysterical condensation of apocalypse. It seemed the global apocalypse had already occurred. The public was already no more. Revealed in this moment was the fundamental opposition between the public and the global, between the historical real of the public and the hysterical simulation of the end of history. We learned, during this state of exception, a new map of the city. Many presumed public spaces were revealed as corporate spaces. The public was but a guest here, subject to eviction. We were no longer tolerated – for our own good.
The state of exception, the state of G20 security, rendered the spectacle of what the end of history might truly look like – a pristine urban grid built by a race now extinct. On the second day of the conference one man walking along the deserted downtown streets, called out in a loud echoing voice, “This is like ‘I Am Legend”, referencing the zombie film about the end of the world in which Will Smith set up a collection of fashion mannequins to serve as his community in a Manhattan emptied by apocalypse. He talked to them, placed them in habitats, and named them: human subjectivity as an evacuated presence in an evacuated world. The global ends history in the manner of a zombie apocalypse. As history dies, so does language and so does memory. The new human presence is muted and reduced, and servile.
If globalism operates from an isolated hermetic capsule whose metaphor is the isolated bubble or biosphere, then globalism is paradigmatic of the entire apparatus of modern management, with its data streams of junk information and same-speak, its Babel-like ziggurats and debased cubicles. Life within the biosphere is fetishistic. Every pleasure is a sterilized risk-less substitute for something more vital and threatened with extinction. From within the biosphere the outer world is a landscape of catastrophe: the end of a senseless history which the biosphere survives. Because of this fetishistic nature, the bionauts and their correlates in the global control center are not reformable. Their errors are symptomatic of enslavement to the fetish object of ideology. Their errors are compulsive, repetitive, hermetically insulated from consequences. Their pleasure is in the act of error itself. Their pleasure is the symptom. In the manner of modern management systems they replicate their errors in an orgy of sterile pleasure.
History has already ended within the apparatus of global management – because time itself has ended. The aspiration of bureaucratic structures is to become timeless – like a clock they emit time by securing a process that is seamless in its repetition. Nothing changes. The bureaucratic structure emits time but has no phenomenal experience of time. It is living within the perfect clock of an ideology.
Ideologies seek to depotentiate events. Events in the sense of Badiou’s definition are a subversive eruption that cannot be understood or explained within the (ideological) set of authorized reality. They demand new modes of thought, new expressions, and new relations of power and discourse. Ideology attempts to impose an oppressive interpretation on events so they arrive already explained and justified and deflected from their original subversiveness. The true event never arrives, and the effect is that of Burroughs’ pre-recorded universe.
Ideology seeks to replace memory. This is the business of whitewashing the past of its subversive events and rendering it as the inevitable, and perhaps even messianic, prelude to the dominant ideology of Now. We become conscious of memory in the effort of remembering. True memory is inseparable from the sense that it is incomplete, that it is marked by loss, by essential and enigmatic lacunae. True memory is always conscious of forgetfulness. When memory is whitewashed in its totality, its lacunae are also whitewashed. The field becomes featureless. This is perhaps an approach to understanding oblivion. Oblivion becomes the amnesia that once formed the topography of memory after that topography has vanished. The ghost of history’s unconscious.
Joseph Stiglitz’s book (2003) on the World bank and IMF illustrates the epidemic of error that ensues when the global maze and its managers preside over the network of exchange. Stiglitz describes a World Bank and IMF bureaucracy that has withdrawn from registering all the intricate and confounding differences of a world that is fundamentally multiple, in favor of a self-refractive or even pataphysical ideology: an ideology that universalizes its limited principles and findings as ‘economic science.’ In East Asia, North Africa, Central and South America, global bureaucrats force neoliberal monetary strategies upon indigenous economies. Disaster ensues. The world insists upon its multiplicity through its naïve but ingenious resistance to the global imposition of a ‘universal’ economic strategy. The World Bank insists that this singular multiplicity is error.
The situation resembles a science fiction dystopia. The bionauts attempt to manage the feral landscape from within the aseptic seal of their biosphere suit. The suit is impermeable due to its need to protect its occupant from the toxins of indigenous existence. This impermeability kills or distorts information arriving from outside the suit. Knowledge of the outside world is reduced to an aseptic fantasy. It is like being walled up in a castle during the plague. You send out messengers bearing your orders to the peasants. But you cannot let them return to inform you of conditions outside for fear of infection. You become a castellan blind and deaf to your subjects. Soon, the number of remaining messengers inside the castle runs low. You send out your orders less frequently but you make them more detailed and applicable to a longer stretch of time. They become more burdensome. Your orders arrive from the obscurity of your blindness and the silence of what you cannot hear.
One of the more curious aspects of the security net thrown around the G20 Summit of Pittsburgh was a designated, secured and fenced-in pit where protestors were allowed to gather and perform their function as protestors. The positioning of the pit was such that protestors could at least hope that their protests might be seen and heard peripherally by global leaders as they entered and exited the Summit headquarters. The space bore an unfortunate resemblance to the caged yards found in prisons and death camps: the same sense of bleak confinement and futility. It was, perhaps, an unconscious, or, more properly, symbolic reenactment of the archetypal ghetto that is the shadow of modern power. The intellectual ghetto, the ghetto of dissent.
In theory, by consenting to their confinement, protestors were allowed to comprise a language, a set of signs, and hence pass from invisibility to the other side of invisibility: signs that come to light already enchained and severed from any relevance or responsibility. The attempt at street theater was circumscribed by a second theater, the theater of real power. This rendered the protest as a kind of dumb show, far less potent than Hamlet’s famous entertainment. Nothing was revealed aside from what was already known: the castration of public space, the castration of dissent. Unlike Hamlet’s sovereigns, the lords and ladies of the G20 have no psychological interior, no consciousness or even unconsciousness of guilt that might be provoked by a dumb show. There is no longer the possibility of a drama of sovereignty divided by its own conscience. As sovereignty becomes hegemonic, its conscience, a rarified entity to begin with, evaporates.
In a Kafkan twist the security maze created by street closings and blockades made it virtually impossible for citizens to reach the pit of protest–the grid of approved passages led in every direction to a dead end. Protestors could see the summit, and by the vastness of its canted roof infer the nearby presence of the invisible pit, but few new the secret path that gained admittance. Of the many rumors of the proper way to protest, no doubt one was true, but it could not be found.
The violence inherent in the dispassionate event of the G20 is dislocated. The ethical function of bureaucratic networks is to defer or dislocate the arbitrary working of power – to dislocate all those events or judgments or outcomes that betray the fundamental adherence of stupidity to bureaucratic power. This is why there is a logical or even fatal connection between network bureaucracy and the eventual deployment of shock and awe as a tactic. The point is always to stun or to stupefy the target of power, to leave the mark of stupification (the contemporary equivalent of the mark of Cain) on the countenance of those tempted to oppose. This is why the approved pit of protest is so deadly to authentic protest – it stamps protest with the mark of stupidity. One is better off running through the streets with neither plan nor purpose than submitting to a virtual death camp in order to speak to a blank wall.
Fetishism is a type of violence. The object body is rent into parts or fragments. This is an act of such obsession that the fetishist no longer sees the violence of this mutilation but remains entranced by the idealized part object. Fetishism is a retreat from contact with the world, onanistic, exclusionary, possessive, and given to elaborate fantasias that are preferred to and confused with the enigma of the world. Here lies the perverse search for perfection and timelessness in the deceptive realm of thought. Thought is mutable, so unfaithful to the world that it easily deludes and seduces. Ideology becomes the rigidified, fetishistic object of desire, the libidinous ceremony of the same. Hidden beneath fetishism is a universal desire: to escape the world of objects and desires.
The situation of global power as a dynamic of fetishism sets up the radical opposition of mutual terror. The world must be silenced, mutilated, in order to resemble the idealized object of the fetish. The invisible violence, the unaccounted violence, is the violence that holds us in place, the violence of a static end (Fukuyama), the violence that is perpetrated upon the possibility of original events, the violence of normalizing, the violence of technocracy. This is the greater violence and the greater terror and it may well be that the farcical Tea Party revolt is animated by an inchoate reaction to this systemic terror. If this is the case they have merely gone mad from terror of the future while still possessed by the cause of this terror. Hence their mad retreat into tricorn hats and powdered wigs.
By contrast, the Occupy movement seems to have run aground against the peculiar non-locality of global hegemonic power. Wall Street is everywhere, and nowhere. It cannot be occupied, even in the creation of an opposing spectacle. Power merely withdraws, and allows the spectacle of occupation to accrete, become opaque and non-spectral. Zuccotti Park devolved into an indifferent and nostalgic spectacle, lacking the self-immolation that sparked its model, Tahrir.
The unaccounted violence of globalism is always directed toward the future. In the present moment it assumes a passive but threatening stance, much like the security forces of the G20. Everything is directed toward the future – violence, deliverance, the true achievement of globalization. By paradox, this occurs at the same time that our fantasies of the future have gone dark and dystopian.
Historically, the various modes of communication have competed with one another. The replacement of the older narration by information, of information by sensation, reflects the increasing atrophy of experience (Benjamin, 1969:159).
One commonality between the Cold War and the age of globalization, or perhaps more aptly the globalization war, is the sense that the possibility of imminent catastrophe is always in play, that the same dynamisms of history still lurk beneath the postmodern surface. It is perhaps true that we exhausted the possibility of a Cold War apocalypse by fantasizing about it. But our fantasizing about terror attacks has not so much exhausted the possibility of terrorist acts as it has instilled in us a sense of déjà vu to accompany each eruption of violence. This is as much true of government violence as it is of terrorist violence. Terror is the elemental, eternal form, beneath each act of historical violence.
This sense of world weariness, or history weariness, or déjà vu, confirms at a deep psychological level that something has ended, whether it be history, or humanism, or even memory. If memory is a true recollection of the past, or at least the combustive moment that Benjamin speaks of when past and present constellate as image, then it is entirely possible to be world-weary or to experience déjà vu in the absence of memory. Indeed, if the democratic masses have lost the possibility of becoming present and have consented all too easily to their disappearance, it may well be because they have lost the combustive memory that bears upon the present. It is possible to be old and young at the same time. It is possible to have a sense of belatedness with little true sense of a past. It is possible to be sated constantly while the spirit of history starves.
Whether or not history has ended, it is clear that we wish it would end. The repetition of events oppresses us. It is not subjectivity that has been exorcised but the spirit of subjectivity. The true gift of globalism is the deconstruction of spirit. Hence, not the disappearing subject but the voided subject. Global hegemony depends upon this void. Power disappears into this void and can no longer be located but radiates outward as a kind of matrix of the void. The voided subject is always complicit with the hierarchy of power by acting out power’s wish while veiling its presence. If the world is holographic (Baudrillard), then the world has become an exact projection of itself, absent its spirit.
One of the odder aspects of this spectacle was that for all its expense and brutal extravagance, there was no audience for it, or at least its audience was so limited and small that it raised the question of was there any function at all to its staging. The haunting images of the evacuated downtown area were generally not broadcast, while the local media was saturated with images of “planned events”, such as world leaders eating in a famous pancake shop before one of their private consultations. These images were carefully filled with people to play the role of ordinary, day-to-day, citizens. The pancake shop had people sitting at every table and at every counter seat. And of course there were moments when the leader spoke to these “ordinary people.” The evacuated city showed up only subliminally on the edge of other camera shots and other planned events. But perhaps this was enough. Perhaps the images of security and depopulation are already over familiar to us, and need only be placed in the background, as if to remind us that around the aura of the planned event there is only a void, an evacuated presence of real life as it disappears, as if to use our anxiety of the void to drive our attention back to the heart of the planned event and to induce in us the neurotic need to find a presence there, to fill the simulation with life so that it might continue in its false reality to suggest that at least there is something out there. But it is also true that virtually everyone sees through these photo opportunities and that we regard them with a profound cynicism. This cynicism is perhaps the well of our deepest response. We perhaps no longer have the ability to describe what lies beyond this cynicism.
We are mutely present to each other as a collective in this cynicism by mutual consent, which becomes yet another background to the photo op implicated in the photo op’s persistence. We are out lived by our cynicism. Our cynicism races away from us into the future where we will meet it again: a perfect loop.
We move into a world where everything that exists only as idea, dream, fantasy, utopia will be eradicated, because it will immediately be realized, operationalized. Nothing will survive as an idea or concept. You will not even have time enough to imagine (Baudrillard, 2000:66).
Then do we confront a contest to see which will outlast the other – the stupidity of power against the disappearance of the public? Both are resilient forms. Each enables the other. A duel of complicit antagonists. A devolution masked by global idealism, its purpose is not yet clear. Certainly the elite prosper in this form, and seem to escape much of the class antagonism and calumny predicted by Marx. Oddly, in this form, it is not vampires who lose their reflected image, but those upon whom they feast.
Every thought born to a people who have disappeared or withdrawn from their own presence is born in the form of parody. It is no longer a question of being thrown into the world but rather of the post-modern impulse of throwing ourselves out of the world. This impulse is reactionary in a strong metaphysical sense. At its root is the same Heideggerian homesickness evolved into a political fate. The more serious we are, the more comic we become. This is the true reversal constituted by hyperreality – a hegemonic cynicism that is even more lethal than hegemonic belief. Can anyone really believe in globalization? Insanity–to believe in a process that is so autonomic, so arrogant, and so beyond our control. In any event, unlike the gods, globalism has no need of our belief. It is best served by our cynicism.
There is, perhaps, still a belief in domination, in the realism of domination, in the pleasure of domination. This may well reflect a stubborn atavistic core in the depths of our being–we who have so systematically annihilated our brothers and sisters just for the crime of being not like us. This began in our prehistory, in crimes older than memory. And its repetition is found in a global inclusiveness that attempts to annihilate its shadow while feeding upon its passionless terror. The pleasure of domination seems even to survive our cynicism and our anhedonia–by evolving into an unlocatable and omnivorous hegemony.
It is the problem of domination that remains after the deconstruction of the subject. We are left with a spiritless subjectivity that no longer recognizes when it dominates or when it is dominated. Subjectivity without libido, and without the genius of primary process. These qualities pass beyond the subject and perhaps join the matrix of hegemonic power, adding to its elusiveness and its peculiar command of the uncanny. In this sense it can perhaps be said that power finally threatens to escape the dead weight of its twin personage, stupidity.
Our cynicism no longer leads us to stand apart. That standing apart marked the lost age of the anti-hero, a last form of subjectivity. Now our cynicism allows us to participate in the lowest degree of collectivity. Together, we feel superior to the lives we are living and to the political farce we are compelled to serve. It is a diabolical illusion. We tolerate everything and anything so long as the hermetic bubble of cynicism protects us. In this we mirror the genius biosphere of the G20 bureaucrats. Perhaps our cynicism is symptomatic recognition that our lives have become a catastrophe of anhedonia and indifference. Perhaps in the saturation of one incredible spectacle after another we hold the illusion that we have lived through all that history can offer, all absurdities, all lies. Perhaps our experience is best read as a history of satiated scopophilia.
About the Author
William Purcell is a clinical psychologist and full professor in the Humanities and Human Sciences Department, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA. He has published previously in the Journal of Child Psychotherapy, and the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought. He is currently writing in the fields of political, cultural, and literary criticism. Some of this writing appears in his blog “A Bridge of Magpies”: http://abridgeofmagpies.blogspot.com.
Jean Baudrillard (2000). The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press.
Walter Benjamin (1969). Illuminations, (Edited by Hannah Arendt). New York: Shocken Books.
Guy Debord (2000). Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red.
Francis Fukuyama (2006). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
Joseph Stiglitz (2003). Globalization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.