Sunday, May 02, 2004

Grins and Thumbs Up: Social Gests of the American Tragedy

The American men and women who had themselves photographed while torturing Iraqis look to be . . . a very cheerful bunch, in a mythical All-American sort of way, with big grins and thumbs up. What makes them look cheerful? Where does their apparent enjoyment come from? Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and critic of postmodern culture, theorizes that the dominant ideology of "totalitarian democracy" in a seemingly "permissive" society works like this:
The superficial opposition between pleasure and duty is overcome in two different ways. Totalitarian power goes even further than traditional authoritarian power. What it says, in effect, is not, 'Do your duty, I don't care whether you like it or not,' but: 'You must do your duty, and you must enjoy doing it.' (This is how totalitarian democracy works: it is not enough for the people to follow their leader, they must love him.) Duty becomes pleasure. Second, there is the obverse paradox of pleasure becoming duty in a 'permissive' society. Subjects experience the need to 'have a good time', to enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and, consequently, feel guilty for failing to be happy. The superego controls the zone in which these two opposites overlap - in which the command to enjoy doing your duty coincides with the duty to enjoy yourself. ("'You May!'" London Review of Books 21.6, March 18, 1999)
While the zone in which "the command to enjoy doing your duty coincides with the duty to enjoy yourself" is as potentially all-encompassing as global capitalism itself, Americans, trapped in the land of vanguard capitalists (who ceaselessly command them to enjoy doing their duty) and self-help handbooks (which endlessly teach them the duty to enjoy themselves), appear to obey both the command to enjoy doing their duty and the duty to enjoy themselves more readily than any other people. The grins and thumbs up in the photographs of torture are not so much evidence of character flaws of particular individuals as social tableaux of the American tragedy, i.e. the tragedy of "totalitarian democracy" in a seemingly "permissive" society. Only by reading them as what Bertolt Brecht called "social gests" -- "scenes where people adopt attitudes of such a sort that the social laws under which they are acting spring into sight" (Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett, NY: Hill and Wong, 1964, p.86) -- can we historicize the tragedy, "raising such questions as: 'Is that the way things are? What produced this? It's terrible! How can we change things'" (Douglas Kellner, "Brecht's Marxist Aesthetic")?

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