Mainstream British media has repeatedly referred to the terrible events of last weekend as the ‘barbaric terrorist attacks in Paris’. On one level of course, this is impossible to argue with (I write as someone who was barely a block away from the Bataclan theatre at the time, and had to flee along with everyone else). The cold cruelty of the perpetrators can hardly be doubted. But why this insistence on the specific signifier ‘barbarism’ to treat the irruption of the real?
It is a signifier that resonates in the deepest echo-chamber of Europe’s self-understanding, bequeathed to us as it is - along with philosophy, rhetoric and democratic ideals - by the culture of the ancient Greeks. Already there, half a millennia before Christ, ‘barbarism’ was doing a great deal of symbolic work. Certainly it invoked the absence of civilization and culture, and thus a relative crudity, coarseness or want of refinement. But it also transmitted an implicit threat of violence in so far as many of the barbaroi within the Greek city-state would have been former enemies conquered in battle whose subjugation to slavery was by no means assured. In this sense, ‘barbarian’ was already a name for the alterity within, for a disturbing extimacy on which, nevertheless, the ideal of direct democracy depended in the most material way. The word’s root in barbaros (the foreigner, the stranger) is thus covertly entwined with its supposed antonym: the politēs or ‘citizen’, he who truly belongs in, and enjoys the rights bestowed by, the political community or the polis. Can we not sense the reactivation of all of these significations in the present moment, as Europe considers how to respond to the Paris attacks? As I write, I note that today’s Daily Mail - a newspaper with a long history of fearmongering about ‘barbarians at our gates’ - declares that over half the Britons they took it upon themselves to survey not only supported the increased bombing of Syria, but wanted the UK’s borders to be closed to all EU migrants and Syrian refugees in particular. Fortress Europe shrinks to a defensive island mentality.
But from our Lacanian point of view, what is particularly noteworthy in the etymological constellation around ‘barbarian’ is the link to speech, every bit as intrinsic to it as the notion of the foreigner within ‘our’ lands: the verb barbarízein referred to the putatively meaningless, animal-like noises uttered by foreigners who could not speak Greek (still today of course, linguistics retains the term ‘barbarism’ to indicate a grammatical error or mistake in pronunciation). In an inadvertent recognition of something like lalangue then, barbaros was understood as an onomatopoeic word that mimicked the ‘blah blah blah’ of inferior, inscrutable non-Greek cultures. Is this not a kind of imaginary spatialisation that attempts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, and the symbolic from the real? Does it not reduce speech essentially to communication or lack thereof?
Again, I note that another of today’s newspapers, the Daily Express, carries the following front-page headline: ‘Migrants Must Speak English – At last! Judges see sense over language rule’ (a reference to Home Office language competency tests for aspiring immigrants into the UK). The worry here is that the underlying assumption - that to be civilized one must learn to speak ‘properly’ - continues to imply that the barbarian is absolutely incapable of a speech of his own. It is a short step from such a view to the belief that rather than talking to him, still less listening to him or engaging with his discourse, it would be much better to drop bombs on him … because that has worked so well in the past, clearly.
In such circumstances, we would do well to remember Walter Benjamin’s dialectical inversion in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘Every document of civilization is a document of barbarism’. But even beyond this critique, we analysts, who attend carefully to the speech of the Other and give ‘barbarisms’ their dignity, ought to be able to speak up ourselves, and listen, at a moment such as this …
In the midst of Argentina’s presidential elections, a video was leaked where an economist, currently a congressman, talks about how he was coached by his party’s political advisor for a televised debate with his opponent: “He said, ‘I want you to do four things in this debate. You just do four things and you’ll be OK; we’ll all be OK. (…) The first one is don’t propose anything. (…) The second thing is don’t explain anything. (…) Just say that they’re lying. (…) Or say whatever you want; talk about your kids…”
This is simple and useful advice from one of the most famous political advertisers in Latin America. The whole video can be watched here.
In September 2015, the 7th American Meeting of Psychoanalysis of the Lacanian Orientation was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The theme of this meeting was precisely “The Empire of Images”, and it is interesting to look into this theme from the perspective of contemporary sociopolitical phenomena: What is the impact of the empire of images on the forms of political construction in electoral processes? Evidently, the video mentioned above gives us a clue.
We might consider that the fall of the big Other, which Jacques-Alain Miller and Eric Laurent interpreted in the seminar “The Other Who Does not Exist and His Ethical Committees” years ago, implies the weakening of authority to perform the function of political leadership. We can see that, instead, advertising, marketing strategies, and the manipulation of statistics try to conquer the electorate. In this perspective, the construction of the candidate’s image is essential —it has always been—, but in this case it is an image that intends to replace ideas, a flat image that intends to “be sold”. Ideas cause misunderstanding; they need other ideas, an S1-S2; they rely on that which we call “discourse”. If sufficiently pregnant, an image can fascinate and prevent us from thinking.
More than ever, in this context we can understand the words Jacques Lacan in "Radiofonía”, when he announces that we will all soon be Lacanian: “The ascent to the social zenith of the object I have called small ‘a’ would suffice (…) because, when one doesn’t know what saint to commend oneself to, (…) one buys anything”1.
Advertisers, experts in the manipulation of images, understood Lacan’s words before anybody else, and this understanding has given them true power in today’s society.
Indeed, in the “Empire of Images”, political discourse is displaced; its agent is no longer the old master, that who wants things to work, but the modern master, that who has a capitalist discourse: an agent who is regulated by no ethics and no politics other than that of the supply-and-demand circuit.
1 Lacan, Jacques. “Radiofonía”. Otros Escritos, p.436. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2012.
I love you to death, don't forget me,
A message in Arabic, written on a torn, wet scrap of paper, was found a couple of weeks ago on the shores of Lesvos, a Greek island close to the border with Turkey. It is one of the islands where every day, risking their lives, hundreds of refugees who are trying to flee horror arrive. Was it given to a loved one during their goodbyes while he was leaving their country? Were they separated? Did they travel together? Did they survive? Did they drown?
The volunteers on the Greek islands who welcome refugees, who save them - when they actually manage to save them - are mostly everyday civilians of these islands. All of them find themselves in the dreadful position of experiencing a situation which becomes even more tragic, non-manageable, intolerable, bordering on the impossible, with every passing day. They are using social media, thus transmitting practical information regarding the donations we can send them. They are expressing their rage against the inertness of Europe. They are uploading photos as well as narrating stories of their everyday lives with refugees. Stories of temporary meetings, exchanges, conversations, games with children. Stories told to them by refugees and other stories that they are trying to guess beyond what they see and hear. These stories are close to the limits of fiction that attempts to encircle the real they are facing. The subjects they write on are children and love stories. Children are playing, laughing, crying, painting, exorcizing nightmares through their paintings, remembering friends and toys they left behind. With just a game, a touch, they laugh again.
The volunteers are transferring this smile to us, and it supports them in their difficult daily effort to repel the cruel images of the drowned children whose bodies they have seen washed ashore by the sea. They are trying to believe in that which is possible - a child who was saved, who plays and laughs again - trying to repel the sense of helplessness that overwhelms them, faced with the limits of the possible.
And on the other hand, there are stories of couples. - The couple in the photo, which inside the mass of unknown refugees, separates and sheds light on the photo, managing to find a small, substantial private space to be kissed in.
- The man who has just landed safely on the coast and is taking care of his pregnant wife; he speaks sweet words in her ear in order to calm her down and he has forgotten that he is still carrying a heavy backpack weighing over fifty kilos on his shoulder.
- The woman at the port of the island who spends some of her precious savings to give her husband a fishing rod. They are going to stay for days, waiting to be registered by the port authorities in order receive the longed-for documents allowing them to depart for Europe. In Syria, in happier times, his hobby was fishing. She is trying to make him forget, to console him. During the bombings, they lost their child.
- The love letter which was found on the coast and which testifies to the fact that something "doesn't stop being written", (Sem XX p. 144 ), that something can write the necessity of a relationship that prevails over the inevitability of death. Volunteers, like those who read their stories, have experienced separations and relationships that ended, couples that did not work out, that did not endure the floating point of suspension from contingency to necessity (Sem XX, p 145). They are trying to support their difficult task in that belief, that somewhere, there exist a kind of love that is able to beat the "exile from the sexual relationship" (Sem XX 145) that is able to beat the traumatic of the exile of refuge.
Translated from greek by Mihalis Manoussakis.
Lacan Jacques, The Seminar XX, Encore, On Feminine Sexuality (1972-73)
p. 144, 145. London: Norton (1998).