...... Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters •
...........3. Escape from New Orleans

...........Slavoj Zizek

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Violence, Irrational and Rational
The Terrorist Resentment
The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape Revisited
C'est mon choix... to Burn Cars
Class Struggles in France, Again

This same deadlock is clearly discernible also beneath the New Orleans outbursts. One of the pop heroes of the US-Iraq war, enjoying a short fame and today forgotten, was Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the unfortunate Iraqi information minister who, in his daily press conferences, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line - when the US tanks were only hundreds of yards from his office, he continued to claim that the US TV shots of the tanks on the Baghdad streets are just Hollywood special effects. Sometimes, however, he struck a strange truth - say, when, confronted with the claims that Americans are in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: "They are not in control of anything - they don't even control themselves!"

It is as if, with the New Orleans descent into chaos, Marx's old saying that tragedy repeats itself as comedy was turned around: Saeed's comic repartee turned into a tragedy. The US authorities, this universal policeman endeavoring to control the threats to peace, freedom and democracy all around the globe, lost control of a part of the metropolis itself: for a couple of days, the city regressed to a wild preserve of free looting, killing and rapes, it became the city of the dead and dying, a post-apocalyptic Zone in which what Giorgio Agamben called homini sacer - those excluded from the civil order - wander around. A lot can be said about this fear that permeates our lives, the fear that, because of some natural or technological accident (electricity failure, earthquake...), our entire social fabric will disintegrate - recall the Millenium Bug fear a couple of years ago. This feeling of the fragility of our social bond is in itself a social symptom: precisely where one would expect a surge of social solidarity in the face of a disaster, the most ruthless egotism explodes.

This is no time for any kind of Schadenfreude, of "the US got what it deserved" - the tragedy is immense, what we have is no ordinary flooding, since New Orleans is below the sea level, so that water will not just retreat by itself. But it is the time for analysis. Something happened that we've already seen - where? The scenes we saw on the TV news in the last days cannot but recall a whole series of real life, media and cultural phenomena. The first association, of course, is that of the TV reports from Third World cities descending into chaos during a civil war (Kabul, Baghdad, Somalia, Liberia...) - and this accounts for the true surprise of the New Orleans eclipse: what we were used to see happening THERE, it now took place HERE. (The irony is that Louisiana IS often designated as the "US banana republic," the Third World part of the US.) This is probably one of the reasons why the reaction of the authorities came too late: although one rationally knew what could have happened, one did not really believe that it can happen, as with the threat of ecological catastrophe - although we know all about it, we somehow do not really believe that it can happen...

However, it DID already happen in the US: in Hollywood, of course, the Escape from... series (Escape from New York, Escape from Los Angeles), in which a US megalopolis is cut off from the domain of public order and criminal gangs take over. More interesting in this respect is David Koepp's The Trigger Effect from 1996, in which, when the power goes out in the big city, society starts to break down; the film plays imaginatively with race relations, and our prejudicial attitudes toward strangers - as the publicity for the film put it: "When nothing works, anything goes." Even further behind is lurking the aura of New Orleans as the city of vampires, living dead and voodoo, where some dark spiritual force is always threatening to explode the social fabric. So, again, as with 9/11, the surprise was not just a surprise: what happened was not that the self-enclosed ivory tower of the US life was shattered by the intrusion of the Third World reality of social chaos, violence and hunger, but, on the contrary, that (what was hitherto perceived as) something which is not part of our reality, something that we were only aware of as a fictional presence on TV and theatre screens, brutally entered our reality.

So what WAS the catastrophy that took place in New Orleans? Upon a closer look, the first thing one can note is its strange temporality, a kind of delayed reaction. Immediately after the hurricane strike, there was a momentary relief: its eye missed New Orleans by about 25 miles, only 10 people were reported dead, so the worst, the feared catastrophe, was again avoided. Then, in the aftermath, things started to go really wrong: part of the protective walls broke down, the city was submerged into water, and social order disintegrated... The natural catastrophe (hurricane) thus revealed itself "socially mediated" in multiple ways. First, there are good reasons to suspect that the US is getting more hurricanes than usual due to man-made global warming. Second, the catastrophic immediate effect of the hurricane (the city under water) was to a large extent due to human failure: the protective dams were not good enough, and the authorities were not ready for the (easily predictable) humanitarian needs. But the true shock took place AFTERWARDS, in the guise of the social effect of the natural catastrophy, the disintegration of the social order - as if, in a kind of deferred action, natural catastrophy repeated itself as a social one. How are we to read this social breakdown?

The first reaction is the standard conservative one: the events in New Orleans confirm yet again how fragile social order is, how we need a severe law enforcement and ethical pressure to prevent the explosion of violent passions. Human nature is naturally evil, descent into social chaos is a permanent threat... This argument can also be given a racist twist: those who exploded into violence were almost exclusively black, so here we have a new proof of how blacks are not really civilized. Natural catastrophes bring to the light the scum which is barely kept under check in normal times.

Of course, the obvious answer to this line of argumentation is that the New Orleans descent into chaos rendered visible the persisting racial divide in the US: New Orleans was 68% black, they are the poor and the underprivileged, they had no means to leave the city in time and were left behind, starving and without care, so no wonder they exploded - their violent explosions should thus be seen as echoing the Rodney King riots in LA, or even the Detroit and Newark outbursts in the late 1960s.

More fundamentally, what if the tension that led to the explosion in New Orleans was not the tension between "human nature" and the force of civilization that keeps it in check, but the tension between the two aspects of our civilization itself? What if, in endeavoring to control explosions like the one in New Orleans, the forces of Law and Order were confronted with the "nature" of capitalism at its purest, the logic of individualist competition, of ruthless self-assertion, generated by the capitalist dynamics, a "nature" much more threatening and violent than all the hurricanes and earthquakes?

In his theory of the sublime (das Erhabene), Immanuel Kant interpreted our fascination by the outbursts of the power of nature as a negative proof of the superiority of spirit over nature: no matter how brutal the display of ferocious nature is, it cannot touch the moral law in ourselves. Does the catastrophy of New Orleans not provide a similar example of the sublime? No matter how brutal the vortex of the hurricane, it cannot disrupt the vortex of the capitalist dynamic...


Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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