Who’s afraid of the Real?
This essay is based on a presentation given at Tiroler Künstlerschaft in May 2008 in Innsbruck, Austria, at an event introducing the work of artist duo bankleer (Karin Kasböck and Christoph Leitner). bankleer often integrates docu-fictional video work into spatial installations, which are typically not presented as self-contained pieces but rather become a process with different stages, involving audiences, their performance, and the reintegration of this performance into the next stage. Presentations like the one in Innsbruck should thus be considered part of the work, rather than about the work, as if there could be a clear division between the work and its presentation or the discourse it generates.
The performatively malleable and discourse-laden figure of the zombie has played a key role in bankleer’s artistic practice since 2004 (with the project raus aus der arbeit, rein mit der realität [out with work, in with reality]). Several of their works—most recently Reale Reste (Real Remnants)—interpret the figure of the zombie as the symbolic embodiment of precarious and marginalized lives, as a residuum of the unredeemed potential of solidarity and empathy—and let it loose on the observers and on ‘reality’ itself.
A bankleer installation usually provides viewers with a number of possibilities for identification, some of which can also be contradictory. The dramaturgy of the video works often calls for the performers to act out these possibilities in an experimental and at times excessive way. Immersing yourself into the zombie persona and its associative field brings to the surface your own experiences of marginalization and the fear that goes with it. But the process of playing and interacting also taps into the suppressed potential of liberation: the intractable desire of the zombies, their moronic fearlessness, and the uncompromising way in which they embody their trauma and their stigma. In this way, artistic practice becomes the experimental ground for processes of self-empowerment.
Reality and the Real
We are surrounded by a world in which fear is collectivized and commodified, in which fear and the feeling of powerlessness are made use of for monetary and political gain: ‘precarity’ as a politically desired and administrated uneasiness that ushered in a new level of exploitation; the criminalization of civil liberties in the name of their possible misuse; and an ever more open militarization of political conflicts along with an apparently ever greater acceptance of war as the ‘most extreme’ means available to ‘militant democracies.’
In this political atmosphere, claims about reality come thick and fast, claims about the kind of threat we are facing and reassurances about the strength of the protecting power. A post-utopian ‘realism’ is propagated, for whom a political ethics is but unnecessary baggage in view of what has to be done. Those who demand ‘painful cuts’ in the social net, who utter out loud the ‘hard truths’ about twenty-first-century threats, are seen as troublesome but honest. Those who demand egalitarian and non-violent politics based on solidarity are considered naïve and are often seen as ‘living in the past’—as if there was ever a time when we all lived together in peace. But was there? In light of the twentieth century it is hard to shake the question why only our fears have materialized on a global scale, and not our hopes, longings, and utopias. The question is perhaps naïve, but it remains unanswered.
So maybe there never was a happy time of freedom, trust, and solidarity. But how can we explain the nagging feeling that something is being irretrievably lost, right now? Maybe freedom and trust were ‘real’ in the Lacanian sense, which ‘can only be retroactively construed’ but nevertheless ‘has to be presupposed in order to understand the present situation.’1 The ‘return of the real’ would then be connected with the hope for the return of what was lost, and resistance strengthened by an awareness of the enormity of the loss. Given the uncertainty about the historical status of freedom and loss this might not, however, mean a return from the past, but, as it were, from the future. This would give the idea of a ‘return of the real’ a utopian core.
The ‘Return of the Real’
A closer look at the ‘return of the real’ and what has been written about it leaves a very ambivalent impression of what this ‘real’ could be. Sometimes the real is what was (or had to be) repressed or suppressed; sometimes the real seems as if it itself is what resists, or can become the support for a certain kind of resistance. Sometimes the ‘return of the real’ has the connotation of an awakening, of a salutary shock or reality check; at others the return of the real is spoken of more in terms of resuscitation, a recovery of life and authenticity.
In his book The Return of the Real2, Hal Foster investigates the return of the real in art in the latter sense, as a kind of re-realization or resuscitation of the object. The life that returns to art is, however, a post-traumatic life, and the subject of this art speaks as a survivor of its own trauma. Foster considers the appearance of this post-traumatic subject both in art as well as in political discourse to be one of the core characteristics of postmodernism. Writing in 1996, he points out a marked tendency in contemporary culture to regard the traumatic subject, the excluded and the cast off, the ‘abject,’ as preordained carriers of truth. According to this view, if we want to know how things stand for us we must turn to the marginalized and their tortured bodies and learn to read them. Foster finds this quite convincing, and argues that the battered body is indeed a witness of a truth, and, in a certain way, is able to give testimony against power. But he also sees a danger in this identification of the wound with truth, which is that our political imagination will become impoverished to the point that we will only be able to distinguish two groups: the oppressed and the oppressors. Foster points to the risk that, in acts of symbolic self-mutilation and helpless solidarity, we will make ourselves into objects of oppression or imagine our own bodies as battered only to avoid being included among the oppressors.
For Lacan, who is frequently evoked when discussing the ‘return of the real,’ the Real is, as pointed out above, something that we can only ever construe retroactively but that has to be presupposed in order to understand our current situation. This strange displacement, this retroactive or external kind of understanding, makes the Real a perfect object for psychoanalysis. The Real is located in the unconscious; an experience, a trauma, an unfulfilled desire that persistently evades its representation in the symbolic order—in other words, its expression in speech. Lacan warns, however, against using terms like ‘repression’ or ‘denial’ as these are already inscribed with the analytic desire for interpretation and disclosure. He suggests instead thinking of the unconscious as subsisting ‘in suspense in the area of the unborn,’ suspended between real and ‘unrealized.’3
In his The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan makes an interesting comment about the traditional ambitions of his discipline: psychoanalysis is not interested in discovering why the daughter is silent, but in getting her to speak. Lacan concludes that the symptom is, first of all, silence. If the patient speaks, she is obviously cured of this symptom. However, Lacan reminds us, the patient’s speech says nothing about what led her to speak in the first place.4 This stays somewhat in the dark, leading Lacan to wonder about this darkness and whether it is the task of analysis to illuminate it. Does the patient have a right to this darkness? Is it even a pathological condition? Lacan reminds the analyst that in the analytic situation this darkness is, in a certain way, aimed at him, the desire of the analyst.
If we were to generalize the complex relationship between analyst and patient as a paradigmatic power situation—which has perhaps been done far too lightly—, then this would suggest that the real may well be the position from which the subject organizes its relationship to power, and that power is particularly interested in communicating with the subject about the real because it is the paradoxical point where resistance and subjugation are closest together.
Repression and Resistance under Biopolitical Conditions
The notion of repression is as ambiguous as that of the real. The call for a return of the real in the service of resistance or emancipation draws on at least two meanings of the term repression: on the one hand repression in the political sense of suppression, in form of an excessive exercise of power or of unacceptable constraints; on the other, repression in the psychoanalytic sense of a shift of what is experienced into the unconscious, in an ongoing process between forgetting and preservation as also surrounds the real.
While psychoanalysis considers repression to fulfill a stabilizing function in the formation of the subject, there seems little reason to question the call to resist political repression. And yet those whose strategies of anti-repressive resistance are accompanied by the rhetoric of liberation from constraint find themselves being reproached today for rebelling against the wrong concept of power. Political philosophers like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben have developed a concept of power that administers and reproduces life rather than suppressing and constraining it. Foucault introduced the term ‘biopower’ to describe a form of power that is oriented towards and devoted, in a certain sense, to the life (bios) in its territory; that maintains an interested, parasitical relationship to this life because it reproduces itself in and through it. This does not mean, however, that biopower does not kill. But biopower kills in order to reproduce life. The antagonism between ‘life and death,’ between ‘growth and decay,’ is no longer the signifier for the supposedly sublime terror of nature. Biopolitics strives to make life and death into operative factors in the wielding of power. Under biopolitical conditions—the conditions under which we live today according to Agamben—the death of some is offset against the life and survival of others.
The ‘big topics’ in today’s political and ethical discourse are biopolitical topics: increasingly scarce resources, rising prices for oil and milk, climate change and the resulting migration movements, China’s energy needs, emissions trading, aging populations (in rich countries), euthanasia and birth control, the building of dams requiring the forced resettlement of entire regions. Always at stake in these discussions is the global management of life options and conditions and, in the long-term, the probability and price of survival. Biopower strips the opposition between life and death of its existential meaning in subjective, lived experience: no longer is every single life a ‘life unto death,’ but life and death have become a fundamental distinguishing feature within the ‘human biomass.’ What this means in practice is that a few are sold the deluxe version of life, a life that is ever more ‘purified’ of death and mortality, while others are given a life that is entirely marked by death because it is transformed by biopower into the most efficient or the least disruptive—in any case the most optimized—kind of dying.
It is crucial that those of us engaged in resistant and emancipatory practice understand that the forms of repression have radically changed under the conditions of biopower, which maintains an extremely cunning relationship to life. If it is to avoid the risk of playing into the hands of power, the struggle against it can no longer be simply waged ‘against oppression’ or ‘for life.’ The tools of biopower have clearly become more flexible and far-reaching, allowing it to get so close to us that it can profit, at times, from our very practices of resistance. A response to this dilemma could be to turn toward and identify ourselves with the very things that seem to evade and oppose biopolitically optimized life. bankleer’s use of the figure of the zombie seems to me to follow such a strategy. In the videos and performances the actors transform themselves into the horrible phantasm of the living dead, of a life in death, with which biopower openly speculates—and discovers – in this very embodiment of the phantasm its potential for resistance. The emptiness in the gaze and gestures of the zombies and the impossibility of communicating with them signal the refusal of a life in a world where consumed ‘communication’ is an operative value in the calculations of power. Instead of lamenting their suffering and watching even this lament be interpreted in the interest of power or commodified by it, the zombies withdraw into silence, into a pure desire that refuses to bargain. They seem to know that the functionalization of desires is part of the core mechanism of capitalist economies. Their intractability is incommensurable with this reckoning. It is not hard to see in this taciturn obstinacy a kinship with Lacan’s ‘silence as symptom’: a silence that refers to something real the subject must not divulge under any circumstances and that the speech of the patient may conceal more than express.
The Real: The Hard Core of Enjoyment
Žižek, in reference to Lacan, describes ‘the logic of the symbolic process’ as ‘a loop, in which at a certain point (the ‘point de capiton’) there is a retroactive decision about the meaning of the preceding segments.’5 This means that the symbolic order consists of a flexible, indeterminate totality of interdependencies. In periodic instances of closure, however, relations are temporarily fixed and the meaning and position of an individual object or experience in relation to all other objects and experiences is decided. Now the Real, as Žižek understands it from Lacan, defies this exchange of flexibility and fixation. ‘In the case of the Real this logic does not work. The Real stays in its place even if the ‘whole world falls apart.’”6 The ‘Real’ here is a manifestation impervious to any form of relativization that will not budge from its spot, thus becoming a touchstone for the symbolic order (reality). The symbolic order stands or falls with the real, but never against it. This kind of persistence brings the zombies to mind again: a stubborn presence that will not negotiate and to which everyone else is accountable whether they like it or not. Such is what Lacan calls the ‘core of enjoyment,’ an enjoyment that ‘always returns regardless of all attempts to dissolve it by explicating or verbalizing its meaning’ (Žižekvii). Lacan’s French term ‘jouissance’, with its double-meaning of enjoyment and (economic) gain, conveys this idea of a forced/forcing positivity quite precisely: the enjoyment stipulates a final inventory that must account for a ‘cum dividend’, a positive interest, by any means. The Real is this powerfully biased must – to which the symbolic order is left to pay heed to by any means.
The Real that returns; the dead that come back to life; zombies that embody the naked core of what we would never give up but do not want to become at any price. One begins to suspect that this kind of enjoyment as the real that ‘stays in its place even if the whole world falls apart’ is imbued with the possibility of resistance and an absolute will to live—but also with the danger that such unconditional enjoyment will extract its toll blindly. Even the most horrific experience of suffering can still appear as enjoyment or as the ‘lesser evil’ once the symbolic order has undergone a thorough revision. All desires, all technologies, all action, repression, rationalization, and justification have their starting point there: if life is not fundamentally aimed at a positive balance, an enjoyment (in which there is a certain degree of ‘idiocy,’ as Žižek rightly points out), then being loses its ‘meaning for itself,’ or, in other words, being becomes alienated from itself. Yet recognizing this real would be traumatic, as its completely independent ‘for-itselfness’ could scarcely be acknowledged as ‘belonging to me,’ let alone as the core that defines and in a certain sense determines me. Such recognition would inevitably destroy enjoyment – again by what would seem to be an alienation of the self from itself. This enjoyment, based upon which we organize our ‘reality’ and which it would be equally destructive to abandon as to fully recognize, is precisely what the technologies of biopower have set their sights on. This enjoyment, this real that we won’t give up for anything, is in fact the very aspect of life that makes power into biopower: to preserve life means to preserve this enjoyment and to harness its intractability. This enjoyment becomes the focus of attention because it also marks the point where the absolute will to live can turn into an almost endless capacity for suffering.
The Spanner in the Works of Power
The power of some over others, exploitation, enslavement, and humiliation were most likely always a manipulative game with the will to live of the subjugated, with the intractability of bare life. The ‘wise’ ruler has to ask himself how much his subjects can tolerate, at what point the oppression and the suffering it causes destroys exploited life—or turns it into resistant life. The question of wise ruling already preoccupied Machiavelli, and in Hegel’s famous struggle for recognition, the domination of the one by the other becomes established at the precise moment when the one fighter demonstrates his intractable devotion to life. He who wants to avoid death at all costs becomes the slave, the other the master. The calculations of power have always factored in the will to live of the exploited. Slavery was not abolished because the exploiting states had a moral change of heart, but because industrialization brought forth other forms of exploitation that were more profitable. Slavery was never actually abolished anyway. The insignia of slavery were not the handcuffs and mantraps put on display in today’s historical museums, but the ledgers of the ship owners, businessmen, and landowners, and those are still with us. To point this out is to get at the core of all exploitation, at what makes the labor or the life of a person into the property or investment of another: power’s grasp at intractable enjoyment, which under conditions of continuous exploitation is reduced to the intractability of bare life.
This extreme point of evading power’s grasp at one’s own enjoyment—of taking one’s own life—remains, of course, a vanishing point for the majority of people. But it is precisely as just such a point that organizes the field from a distance that this conflict in the subject is the place from which the symbolic order is organized. The threat of this conflict is an effective instrument of discipline. It ensures that the symbolic order—the reality of language, exchange conditions, art, etc.—is set up so that it looks as if we are far away from this vanishing point where life touches death in the calculations of power. This, however, is the very point from which we must understand our present situation and organize our resistance.
Translated from German by Millay Hyatt.
Published in: nowiswere Contemporary Art Magazine, No. 2 / October 2008, edited by Veronica Hauer and Fatos Üstek.
1 Slavoj Žižek, Liebe dein Symptom wie dich selbst!, Berlin, 1991, p. 129. – All Žižek quotes in this text are taken from this German-language publication by Merve, which differs significantly from the English-language Enjoy your Symptom!, available in several different editions. Unfortunately I was not able to locate the original quotes in the time available for writing this essay, which is why they were (re-)translated and the German source referenced throughout the text.