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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006) 

Book Review: Distinguishing Spectacle From Real

Slavoj Žižek. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. New York: Verso, 2004.

Reviewed by Damien Shortt
(Doctoral Program, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland).
 

            The title of this book presupposes knowledge of Freud’s anecdote concerning how subconscious attempts in dreams, to deny or suppress disturbing knowledge, often paradoxically result in a self-contradiction and resultant confirmation of the presence of such knowledge or emotions. Basically, the anecdote runs as follows: Person X has borrowed a kettle from person Y, who claims that the kettle was returned in a damaged condition; X has a threefold strategy of defence: 1) I never borrowed the kettle in the first place, 2) when I returned it there was no damage, 3) anyway, the kettle was already broken when I borrowed it. Žižek’s thesis is that the leaders of the invasion-coalition of Iraq have, perhaps subconsciously, employed this method of denial and suppression with regard to the motivation for the invasion (Iraqi possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction), and consequently revealed, to the informed observer, their culpability through the act of denial. In this book it is Žižek’s project to ensure that all observers are informed.

            Echoing Baudrillard’s analysis of the first Gulf War (discussed below), Žižek quickly acknowledges that Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle is not really about Iraq, since “the Iraqi crisis and war were not really about Iraq either”.1 Indeed, one of the bravest arguments made in this book, and there are many, is that the war in Iraq is actually a war between the United States and Europe:

That is to say: what if, as some economists have already suggested, the true economic aim of the war was not primarily control of oil resources but the strengthening of the US dollar, the prevention of the dollar’s defeat against the euro, the prevention of the collapse of a dollar which is less and less ‘covered’ by ‘real’ value (think of the immense US debt)? Today, a united Europe is the main obstacle to the New World Order the USA wants to impose.2

 

            While the book is some 180 pages long, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle accounts for only 67 pages, yet Žižek fits an amazing amount of thought into this section: he presents what he sees as the true motivations for the Iraqi war; provides a critique of American imperialism; conducts an analysis of contemporary European politics and what potentially lies ahead; proposes a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and poses the question “who will judge the warriors on terror?”3 The rest of the book is divided between two appendices: the first of which analyses liberalism and democracy, their respective reactions to evil, and the possibility of “the Gentle Art of Killing”;4 while the second appendix is strongly Lacanian-based in its analysis of the logic behind ethical violence, and the debate on whether it is acceptable to suspend democracy and human rights in a bid to secure the future of both. Žižek seems to think that the answer is dependent upon who is to carry out the dirty work, and the implication is that the USA is certainly not ethically qualified to do so. This section of Lacanian analysis is quite abstract, but one of Žižek’s special skills as a writer is in applying the theory to a more easily understood actuality, whether it be a painting,5 Churchill’s History of the Second World War,6 or the differences between the Pope-as-person and the Pope-as-symbol.7

            While the rest of the book is eminently accessible, this section is, unfortunately, heavily reliant on Lacanian “mathemes” which explore the various types of discourse possible between a master signifier and a secondary signifier. However, at various times Žižek mercifully provides the reader with an oasis amidst the desert of abstruse theory, by providing a succinct summary of his argument. Perhaps one of the most important is that he believes:

… there are two topics which determine today’s tolerant attitude towards others: respect for otherness, openness towards it, and obsessive fear of harassment – in short, the other is all right in so far as its presence is not intrusive, in so far as the other is not really other.8

 

This is a core concept of Žižek’s thought in this book: the proximity of a subject to its other is directly proportional to the potential degree of violence in the reaction of the other to the perceived invasion of space – in other words, the closer the two come together the greater the possibility of violence. In a world where subjects (on both a national and individual level) are coming into ever closer contact with their other – physically, culturally, and ideologically – there is ever greater potential for violent conflict. Žižek sees the global capitalist world order, with its distinctly American cultural and ideological agenda, as having expanded so far as to have taken within its boundaries the space of its other and therefore possibly admitted within its own sphere the agents of its own destruction.

            The book is split into three sections, each entitled with a cryptic Latin phrase: Non Penis a Pendendo; Canis a non Canendo; Lucus a non Lucendo. Each phrase is something of a linguistic joke, basically discussing the etymology of Latin words with the implication that an object is defined and named by what it is not: for example, a dark grove (lucus) is so called because it is not bright (lucendo). Interestingly, Žižek does not provide a translation for the titles and the reader is forced to discover their meanings for themselves, thereby the form of the text begins to take on the qualities of its content as Žižek endeavours to lead the reader to the realisation that to effect real social change we must change from a reactive society to a proactive. It thus appears that Žižek’s main intent is to demonstrate to his reader that the world in which we live is founded, structured and exists (not only linguistically but in reality) thanks to its dichotomous opposite: democracy can exist because it is willing to engage in temporary totalitarianism; liberal-pacifism exists because it is willing to temporarily condone/employ violence; and international humanitarian charity exists in order to mask (or in atonement for) the endemic capitalist exploitation of the underdeveloped nations.

            It is possible to read Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle as a continuation of the project initiated by Baudrillard in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; it is also possible to read Žižek’s book as something of a vindication of Baudrillard who predicted that the Gulf War, while not happening in the sense of a real war, was, nevertheless, “interminable”.9 If the reader is looking for a reason for this non-war’s interminable nature, then perhaps it lies in Baudrillard’s claim that:

There is a profound scorn in the kind of ‘clean’ war which renders the other powerless without destroying his flesh, which makes it a point of honour to disarm and neutralise but not to kill. In a sense, it is worse than the other kind of war because it spares life. It is like humiliation: by taking less than life it is worse than taking life.10

 

According to Richard Rorty,11 to humiliate a human being is the worst sort of violence that can be perpetrated upon a person, and therefore it is possible to understand why it is that, fourteen years after the first Gulf War, the USA and its coalition partners are still embroiled in an interminable conflict that can never be won, since they refuse to engage the enemy in a manner that does not humiliate – as Baudrillard argues: “the one whom you disarm without seeing is insulted and must be avenged”,12 and one need only recall the backlash from the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse photographs to see the prescience of Baudrillard’s argument.

            A further link between Žižek and Baudrillard lies in their analysis of the parameters of the Gulf Wars. As stated earlier, Žižek argues in his text that the War is not between the West and its other, but rather between the West and itself since the West’s sphere of influence has expanded to such a degree as to include the whole world within its ambit, and that the reason there appears to be a war is, as Baudrillard claims, because:

The Americans, for their part, understand nothing and do not recognise this fact. It is not an important match which is being played out in the Gulf, between Western hegemony and the challenge from the rest of the world. It is the West in conflict with itself, by means of an interposed mercenary, after having been in conflict with Islam (Iran), and also by means of an interposed Saddam. Saddam remains the fake enemy. At first the champion of the West against Islam, then the champion of Islam against the West.13

 

            Ultimately, both Žižek and Baudrillard argue that it is the manipulation of the object-as-symbol through the distorting lens of the media that justifies to the Western audience the claim that Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and Islam in general are the enemies of the Western way of life:

…the fact that the object is visible and accessible only through the distorting lenses of prohibitions and obstacles, generates this magical aura which makes it so fascinating: were we to get a direct look at the object, we would soon perceive that it is just a common vulgar thing.14

 

In the case of the Gulf War both theorists apparently agree that the other is, in many respects, fetishized by media manipulation. The proliferation of choreographed footage from the battle-zones, the never-ending stream of supposed expert analysis all serve to create a potential amnesty for everyone “by the ultra rapid succession of phony events and phony discourses”.15 The difference between the two theorists is perhaps abrasiveness (where Žižek is usually analytic, Baudrillard is often confrontational). Žižek seeks to bring the reader gradually to an awareness of the ideology masked behind the media message, whereas Baudrillard seeks to shock by claiming that media coverage of the war is “the laundering of stupidity by the escalation of stupidity”.16 Their message, however, is very similar indeed: that the fourteen year conflict in the Gulf can be read as a period in the history of human civilization where the spectacle and the real have become almost indistinguishable.


Endnotes

1 Slavoj Žižek. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. London and New York: Verso, 2005: 8.

2 Ibid.:36.

3 Ibid.:66.

4 Ibid.:113.

5 Ibid.:133.

6 Ibid.:135.

7 Ibid.:136.

8 Ibid.:151-152.

9 Mark Poster (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. California: Stanford University Press, 1988: 233.

10 Ibid.:241.

11 Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. The Cambridge University Press: 89. Rorty remarks that “…most people do not want to be redescribed. They want to be taken on their own terms – taken seriously just as they are and just as they talk. The ironist tells them that the language they speak is up for grabs by her and her kind. There is something potentially very cruel about that claim. For the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless”.

12 Ibid.:241.

13 Ibid.:240.

14 Slavoj Žižek. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. London and New York: Verso, 2005:177.

15 Mark Poster (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. California: Stanford University Press, 1988:248.

16 Ibid.: 248.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)

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