This painting reminds me of a joke: You can determine how racist a white person is by the volume they say the words “black people” while among other white people at a social gathering. For example, they could be referencing some anecdotal story that happened earlier in their day and when they say “black people” their voice drops significantly, as if they are whispering it. Is their motivation for whispering because they feel their language is taboo? Or, do they feel it reduces African Americans to qualify their existence by skin color— implicitly implying that having the quality of black is a negative connotation in of itself? Or do they assert and accept a cultural negative connotation and from an act of liberal tolerance reduce their voice— as to symbolically reduce the effect of the presupposed negation? Which, in return, becomes the negation, of what they were trying to negate.
Last week this mural was painted by the graffiti artist that is known simply as “Bansky” in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, UK. A local government council voted to paint over the art because it was “offensive and racist…” and painting over it is “in line with [their] policy to remove this type of material within 48 hours.” (Johnston, 2014) As the whispering white person is attempting to act tolerant towards a person of another race by down-playing the race qualifier and it’s presumed negative implication, so is the government agency that removed the art that depicted racists pigeons casting away a poor little swallow. Does negating the negation solve the problem? Is the notion of being tolerant of other people and their differences and struggles merely a product of cognitive dissonance— hence, allowing us to create symbolic wedges. Like Holden Caulfield perpetually and fanatically obsessing over removing the words “Fuck you” from the world (Salinger, 1951), in hopes that if we can remove evidence that the world was ever dirty, then we can claim it is clean.
This 21st century paradox of tolerant intolerance, as Žižek would claim, is tolerance that only goes as far as the front door. In other words, there is a political desire (if you can call it that) to be tolerant of other people from a distance, or perhaps a priori (I would posit), but equally, and perhaps in abstract rebellion to the communication rebellion and its compulsion with connecting everybody, is the need to have the “right not to be harassed” (Žižek, 41), and it’s the politics of fear that not only validate this position, but in regard to censoring this art— enable it. This, all too familiar, super-sensitive, politically-correct neurosis of modern capitalism is, as they say, the root of the problem. Capitalism in of itself, which creates a state of objective violence, which becomes a feedback loop where “the external threat that the community is fighting is its own inherent essence…” (Žižek, 27). In short, capitalism is a negation of the negation.
As George Orwell expressed after returning home to England after helping the Catalonians in their fight against fascism: it is a daunting task to consider the British are bickering over the milk on their doorstep being of unsatisfactory temperature, while a world away in Spain wounded men sleep in cold filth and try hard to illuminate their night with “lanterns filled with olive oil”. It is, as if, people do not have the foresight and willingness to see around the arc of the earth. (Orwell, 1952) Technology has expanded our ability to connect over greater distances and, in essence, decreased the size of our world— and, subsequently, decreased this arc of blind indifference towards thy neighbor, who, is now, too fucking close.
Reflecting back on the painting you can see the double-negation as follows: the explicit racism that is illustrated in the art, as art reflecting life and in the process of reflecting it’s evidential of the objective violence, which negates the telos of society (more on this assumption later). Then the act of censoring this negation is implicitly causing symbolic violence in the form of a negation— as non-language that is negation qua negation of a negation is deduced to Capitalism in positivity. Capitalism in positivity is acting upon itself to prevent its own annihilation, or in other words, capitalism will act in self-preservation to abstain from annihilation of self. Or in short, as Ayn Rand would virtuously defend: capitalism is the philosophy of selfishness (Rand, 1965).
Ayn Rand would go further to claim that the virtue of selfishness is the opposing action to the act of altruism. As selfishness is an act that benefits the self, while altruism is an act that benefits the non-self (Rand, 1965). Žižek postulates that this reasoning is fallacious as it is possible for an agent to be both egoistic and altruistic in action without contradiction— donating money to charity will benefit the recipient of the charity with money and the giver of charity will be benefited from the positive affirmation of the good deed. The opposition to egoism should inherently work “against self interest” and Žižek posits envy as the opposition to selfishness and, a fortiori, Capitalism (Žižek, 86).
Analyzing the Bansky painting we could argue that the pigeons are acting egoistic in their unwillingness to share resources with the swallow, but we can also argue that the pigeons are not acting from ego, but rather from envy— as they’re envious of the colorful plumage of the swallow. Moreover, the swallow can also be seen as embodying both egoism and envy— or as Freud puts it our inherent “death drive is opposed by our pleasure principle” and in Lacanian language “the desire for the other” (Žižek, 87). It’s not a stretch to take this to the next step and ask is the self-contradicting nature of ego/envy an unmodified reflection of the Big Other’s aforementioned self-contradicting negation? Or, conversely, is the opposite true? Žižek fails in this regard to recognize that there is nothing to determine who is holding the mirror— the ego/envy dichotomy may be merely analogous to the authentic/inauthentic self and the essence of being or in Heidegger terms: dasein (Heidegger, 1962). Implying that the Marxist swan song, which has been set to perpetual repeat, that warns against the evils of capitalism is actually a warning against the evils of human nature disguised in a mask of abstraction. Therefore, to reason for Marxism is to reason for Utopia. This now brings us full circle to the assumption I made earlier about the telos of society — what is the point of all this to begin with?
As Kant argues the path to perpetual peace (Utopia) comes from very well constructed and firmly followed international laws that are designed to finely tune society to the perfect balance of law and order (Kant, 2006) — alluding to the semblance of globalized fascism. Conversely, Popper argues that perpetual peace (Utopia) is the product of a genuine, and universal, rejection of all ideology— alluding to the semblance of globalized communism (Popper, 1999). Aristotle argues that the telos of society is the “aim at the most authoritative good for all” and this comes from a partnership between citizen and state (Chase, 1911). Between the two polarizing ideals of Kant and Popper, is there a path that embodies the common good of all the people— Can Aristotle’s perfect polis ever be realized? Or are we just kidding ourselves? How can we create a society that transcends our inadequacies, without transcending ourselves first? Otherwise, the crux of existence is just the longest game of Whac-o-mole ever conceived.
As neither I, nor Žižek, have a solution to this perpetual problem — I shall digress and get back to the joke. If we were to transcend ourselves to a state of Eudaimonia it would be evident in a simple notion: the joke about racism I mentioned earlier would be completely nonsensical. Meanwhile, all philosophical inquiry in this matter will be akin to drawing circles in the sand, only to watch the waves of time annihilate them and then redraw, repeat, ad infinitum.
- Johnston, C. (2014). http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/01/banksy-mural-clacton-racist?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2#start-of-comments. In The Guardian.
- Salinger, J., & Mitchell, E. (n.d.). The catcher in the rye.
- Ek, S. (2008). Violence: Six sideways reflections. New York: Picador.
- Orwell, G. (1952). Homage to Catalonia. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Rand, A., & Branden, N. (1965). The virtue of selfishness. New York: New American Library
- Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. New York: Harper.
- Kant, I., & Kleingeld, P. (2006). Toward perpetual peace and other writings on politics, peace, and history. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Popper, K. (1999). All life is problem solving. London: Routledge.
- Chase, D. (1911). The Nicomachean ethics of Aristotle. London: J.M. Dent ;.