The most frequent words out of the mouth of Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington in the Shonda Rhimes television drama Scandal, is: what do you want? Run by a culture that feeds on raw desire, DC is a town that breaks things. The job of Pope and Associates – the ‘gladiators’ – is to fix things. The only problem, as the drama unfolds, is that Olivia and her colleagues also run on pure libidinal desire. Olivia always says that she ‘trusts her gut.’ Not only do these practices also get them in trouble, but because such a world is so obviously unsustainable, a system must be in place to truly keep those desires in place. Incredibly, it’s a secret program in the CIA run by Olivia’s father called B613. They are the real fixers: they kill people, engage in surveillance, and do all sorts of other shady things to ‘protect the Republic.’ The only problem is that they too are people. They also have desires that cloud their judgment.
And on and on it goes. I say B613 is incredible because the discovery of B613 as the real grid that lies behind everything was such a cop-out that I eventually lost interest in the show. Before that revelation (which was admittedly earlier on than I like to admit), I told myself I was binging on it on Netflix to prepare for a course I was teaching at Northwestern on conservative ideologies and communities of color. It looked like it had a relatively neoconservative premise – the president is a Republican, there’s a surveillance state that tries to prevent disasters from happening, and nothing that is fixed is ever truly fixed because the fixing creates more problems – so I thought it might be useful to frame a lecture or two on neoconservatism with the show. I did indeed. I just don’t know if I’d do it again because that B613 cop-out really bothers me. It’s so deus ex machina. But then again, isn’t that what neoconservatism basically is?
What do you want is the basic neoconservative question. Here, I go further than Slavoj Žižek’s chapter in The Sublime Object of Ideology titled ‘Che vuoi?’ – literally, what do you want in Lacanese. For Žižek, what do you want is the basic question of ideology. It doesn’t matter which one. Communism, fascism, liberalism, conservatism, feminism, environmentalism – they are all asking the same question, getting you to confess to them what you want, what you are living for. But if Irving Kristol is correct to say that neoconservatism is simply composed of ‘liberals who have been mugged by reality’ – people who believe in freedom and democracy and even socialism (there are ex-radicals in neoconservative ranks) so much that they will implement it all over the world by any means necessary – then isn’t neoconservatism the perfect ideology?
No wonder Žižek keeps joking about how everybody used to make fun of the neoconservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama for declaring that history ended with the collapse of communism in 1989. Of course, that’s not quite what Fukuyama argued – he said that Kojève said that Hegel said that history ended in 1806. Also, Fukuyama told the world in 2007 that he is not really a neoconservative anymore, because Dubya. Because of this conversion, Žižek has long said that we have a lot to learn from reading Fukuyama carefully even if we don’t like his ideology. I agree; someone with the capacity to critique their own fantasyland is usually well worth the reading. The point of Žižek’s joke, though, is that for all the criticisms of Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis, it’s his critics that have become the real Fukuyameans, acting as they do as if the world has reached the end of its ideological progression and all we have to do is to maintain the order we have now. Fukuyama may have abandoned his neoconservatism, but his critics have only gotten started. Bono was right this whole time: choose your enemies carefully, cos they will define you.
In a world where a perversely more-Fukuyamean-than-Fukuyama neoconservatism is normal, everybody is asking each other what do you want? This world is not just Fukuyamean. It’s Foucauldian. It’s discipline at the level of the microphysics of power. It’s a question that is asked at the everyday level. It is what constitutes our small-scale interactions. The world is like a modern prison, with a panopticon that watches you because everybody is watching everybody. Of course, the Marxist geographer Nigel Thrift has been known to joke that it’s ‘always raining in Foucault-land,’ and Michel de Certeau says that Foucault is wrong because not everything is a prison. There are, as Certeau puts it, ‘clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and make-shift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of “discipline”‘ that ‘composed the ‘network of an antidiscipline’ (The Practice of Everyday Life, pp. xiv-xv). But asking what do you want? is not one of those antidisciplinary practices. It’s part of what Foucault calls a society that is founded on a ‘state of war,’ where power isn’t implemented by a sovereign institution from the top down but circulates among those living in a society.
Byung-chul Han goes even further in Psychopolitics. With the advent of social media, it is not just everybody asking each other what they want. Continuing from what I said yesterday, it’s that you start asking yourself what do you want? What do I want? What do I truly want?
What is created by this question is a society of lies. What do you want? asks me to search my feelings, to dig through my impulses, and to articulate in words my desires. The resulting proposition is the basis for a plan of action. But desires are deceptive. Boil them down, and you don’t get what you want. You get what you think you want at that moment. Then you have to really start wanting it. But if what you want to want is not fully or even truly what you want, then is this not a form of false consciousness? And isn’t this how people lie to themselves? And when everybody is doing it, doesn’t that mean we are a society of lies? If we are all Fukuyameans, are we not all neoconservatives too? Isn’t this why neoconservatism has really screwed the world up with its repeated failures to displace dictators in order to create free and democratic societies?
I have been learning that those who truly love me do not ask me what I want. If they do, they are asking me to get the lies out of my system. They know that when I tell them what I want, it’s never the truth. It is impossible to answer that question truthfully.
What those who love me ask me is what I have been doing. The done thing does not tell any lies. It is material. It is concrete. It is practical. It is what has been practiced. It helps me to ask myself what I am doing too. By examining my practices, I cannot tell a lie. I also realize what it is that I have been wanting in ways beyond words, in a way that lets the desire just sit without having to be fulfilled, to let it breathe and be prayed over, blown over by the Spirit who searches all things. My spiritual father once told me that it’s a common practice in the seminary to discern what you should do by acting as if you are doing something – actually becoming a priest, actually leaving the seminary – and then seeing how it works out. The key is to act and then reflect on the actions that have been taken. I suppose this is what the Jesuits call the examen, the walking back through the day to examine with the Lord what I have done. But I am not sure that that is what I want to call this practice. I will not pretend to be as smart as a Jesuit.
But I wonder if the self-examination of practice and a conversation style based on praxis is one way to get free from at least my deceptive ways of reinforcing a neoconservative normativity. Then again, it’s only the first day of the Great Fast, and I am not really sure where there is going yet. I’ve still got a lot to process.