In a talk I once heard, Slavoj Zizek addresses the classical technique used by medieval clerics to stave off what we would call “impure thoughts”. In that mental exercise, the cleric is told to envision the beautiful body while old and frail, deprived of its youthful characteristics. Or better yet, imagine what is below the surface of that comely flesh: bones, blood, bile, and other nasty things. In the standard interpretation, such unsavory things are the stuff of reality: what lies under the surface. In Zizek’s reading of things, however, following Lacan, the Real is what falls between appearances. In this case, it is the woman’s flesh itself, its pure appearance that is the reality. The fantasy is trying to get “below the surface”, precisely because what is below the surface isn’t there in the first place. The thing that drives reality, the reason we are compelled to do things, is the fantasy: the objet petit a in “Lacanese”.
The other example the Slovenian philosopher uses is the current financial crisis. Zizek says that even if we knew what would happen in 2008 (and many people did know) would that have changed anyone’s behavior? Would anyone not have issued sub-prime loans, not de-regulated the banking industry, have done anything not to “live beyond their means” etc.? No, probably not. Really, the reality of how this played out is the following: those who could least afford it got hosed, and the bankers made off with all the money, even more than they had in the first place. Were any of them thrown in prison? Were any of them shamed or deprived of power? No. That, my friends, is the reality.
As much as we would like to condemn the ignorance of those who fall for the “bread and circuses” , it is precisely the “fantasy” in this case that moves the real world. It is the fantasy, the commodity fetishism, the lust to expropriate more of the workers’ surplus value, that is the reality that drives us. So when we see it in Lady Gaga, video games, and the antics of wayward famous actors, why are we so shocked? Would we even be here without those things? How many of our parents conceived us after a movie, or on some “dream vacation”, or in hope of a “Leave It to Beaver” style life? How many of us earn our living from these consumerist “fantasies”? We live and die by capitalist fantasy, and to pretend some sort of rational just market exists above this smacks of foolish superstition. These things drive our reality, they are the things that make our world go round.
So if anything, such “economic disaster porn”, hollow-headed libertarian propaganda like the above video is the real perverse fantasy. Not because I don’t think it’s right; it may very well be. But worrying about a system which you have no intention or desire of actually changing seems like degenerate mental masturbation. What are we going to do? Return to the gold standard? Have people print their own money? Dismantle the American empire overnight; this thing that gave us the Internet, penicillin, and the Acton Institute? Stock up on “gold, guns, God, and grub”? Not fucking likely. When people start talking about expropriating the expropriators and throwing some powerful people in real prison, then I might have time for this bullshit. In the meantime, I will keep mocking these people as they deserve.