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Thursday, May 15, 2003
By the by, the Matrix article (which gets a bit too Spoiler-happy on the third page for my tastes) mentions an article entitled "Welcome to the Desert of the Real" written by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek after 9/11, and it's published here.

Near as I can tell (some words are both capitalized and italicized, which I don't really understand), he's arguing that the destruction of the WTC caused Americans to become suddenly aware that they were living in an illusion (or "their own commercial," as Zizek evocatively puts it later), not unlike Neo's awakening to the past few centuries of human existence in The Matrix or Jim Carrey's gradual awareness that his whole life was being orchestrated in The Truman Show. I don't remember this getting a lot of play at the time it was written, i.e. immediately after 9/11 (which is maybe good, because I'm sure O'Reilly et al would be happy to scream about comparing the deaths of innocents to a Keanu Reeves movie, etc.--never understood that kind of willful inability to get the point), but now in light of both the foreign policy adventures that event engendered as well as the scattered details picked up about the new Matrix movie, it has some interesting backward resonances.

First off, one of the striking problems with Zizek's comparison regards the benefits of revelation. Generally speaking, revelation seems to be a good thing in these kind of paranoiac fantasies: in Dick's The Man in the High Castle, the main character discovers the existence of an alternate reality in which America is not occupied by the Nazis and Japanese; in The Matrix, Neo gains the ability to instantly learn martial arts styles, stop bullets, etc. In contrast, the fallout of 9/11 has been, I think, largely negative; the Taliban was toppled and Hussein deposed but the long-term health of their respective countries does not seem to be promising at present, and domestically every policy passed as a result of 9/11 (the airline bailout, PATRIOT, homeland security) has resulted in net losses for citizens, I think. Political opinions differ, of course, but it's hard to see an analogue to these fantasies of liberation here.

Of course, it's also a weird implication that 9/11 validated paranoid fantasies, which is basically what the movies he's talking about do. Is he trying to say that warning about terrorism before 9/11 was viewed as a paranoiac reaction and marginalized, and that we should give more credence to assumed paranoid warnings? But if so, isn't the right a whole lot more paranoid than the left at this point about that sort of "we're just not seeing it!" kind of thing? The left's paranoia seems to be mainly about the ill effects of encroachments on civil liberties and the secret power of economic elites, but should we pay these more heed because they could come back to bite us? I don't think so--I think it's actually more metaphorically linked to paranoid lit than 9/11 was. 9/11 was a provable thing; you could see that terrorism is a threat. The point of the Matrix (and even more so in Dick's fiction) is that it's nearly impossible to prove to anyone that your fears are justified. It's not Cassandra syndrome, where later people can look back and see you were right--the point of these kind of fears is that, if they do come to pass, no one will be able to tell you were right, even if you are. I think this is why we look to sci-fi for this kind of social commentary, since it's better at playing with metaphysics than accurately reflecting political realities.

Then again, the fake reality of the Matrix is actually pretty appealing; Tank ends up cutting a Faustian bargain to get back in. It's certainly a lot nicer than the slop and war of the real world, unless you can dodge bullets. And for many people, the scripted reality of the Truman Show is kind of nice--idyllic, even. Maybe to that degree it's a little creepy (and his inability to explore outside the confines of his town is certainly limiting) but I think we all like having someone control aspects of our lives so we don't have to deal with it, and having an entire cast and crew catering to you--well! Who wouldn't want to be the center of the universe, eh? So from this angle, it's not so much an issue of freedom--Neo and Truman both have high-level restrictions placed on them, but are remarkably free to do as they please--but as of the free will of thinking men. Neo is picked because he has a vague dissatisfaction with the way things are, even though they seem fine, and this understanding makes him able to see The Truth. But the point is that he does have the ability to choose, ultimately, as does Truman, despite the obstacles placed in their way, and it is this will to give up comfort for increased free will that supposedly marks them as noble.

But I think Zizek is selling Americans short here:

For the last five centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the "civilized" West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the "barbarian" Outside: the long story from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo. Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic than real. The U.S. just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one adds to the situation in New York snipers and gang rapes, one gets an idea about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.

Come on now. It's not like Americans don't know Bad Things Happen, and I don't think it's like we didn't know Bad Things Happen To Us. (Nor was 9/11 necessary to demonstrate that.) Indeed, it's a testament to how aware we are that Bad Things Can Happen To Us that so few bad things have happened. I'm not saying that the way we've done this is the most moral, but we're clearly aware of the dangers and we're clearly going to extreme lengths to insulate ourselves from that. The Bad Things we visit on others are a different story, unfortunately. Truman doesn't leave because the producers are torturing small boys; Neo doesn't leave because humans are being farmed. They leave because bad stuff is happening to them. And the solutions they employ are either pointlessly personal (Truman) or revolutionary and not a little Leninist-vanguardy (Neo). But my mom's refusal to kill Iraqis won't do much, and like it or not, while revolution might work fine in the kind of totalitarian regime Neo lives under, it's just not going to be a viable avenue to pursue in a democracy which, yes, America still is. So what do we do? Just as irony didn't die, neither did America's desire to keep itself insulated from the outside world. How do we induce those who have the power to ratchet down the evils taking place in our name around the world?

Maybe we can't. The thing Zizek seems to be suggesting is that if we continue to pursue imperialism there will be more bombings and these will wake us up to the dangers and we will inevitably conclude that we need to pursue peace by other means. But I dunno--that hasn't been working so well so far. The fact is that half the country does not and probably will not ever believe that we can be safe by treating people nicely, because they think that those people will then just walk all over us. And maybe they're right, at least partially. I can't help but think that, as always, the political reality is more complicated than the sci-fi validation of a totalitarian paranoiac fantasy, and we're just going to have to keep going with compromises like we always do.