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Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means/Slavoj ZIZEK

As we know from philosophical phenomenology, the object of our perception is constituted through the subject's attitude towards it. An exemplary case of this is provided by a naked feminine body. This body can provoke our sexual arousal; it can serve as the object of a disinterested aesthetic gaze; it can be the object of scientific (biological) inquiry; in extremis, among starved men, it can even be an object of culinary interest... Apropos of a work of art, one often encounters the same problem. When its political investment is too obvious, it becomes for all practical purposes impossible to suspend our political passion and to assume a disinterested aesthetic attitude.

And therein resides the trouble with Emir KUSTURICA's Underground. One can approach it as an aesthetic object -- insofar as politics involves no less passion than sex. One can approach it as an enjeu in our politico-ideological struggles. It can also serve as the object of scientific interest (to the subject who is able to assume the gaze of a historian and who can study the film in order to learn some background about the Yugoslav crisis). In extremis, it can function as an object of pure technical interest (how was it made?). With regard to the passionate reactions to which Underground gave rise, especially in France, it seems that its role as the enjeu in the political struggle over the meaning of the post-Yugoslav war totally eclipsed its inherent aesthetic qualities. While, in ultima analysi, I accept this perception, my viewpoint is slightly different. The political meaning of Underground does not reside primarily in its overt tendentiousness -- in the easy way it takes sides in the post-Yugoslav conflict (heroic Serbs versus the treacherous, pro-Nazi Slovenes and Croats...) -- but rather in its very "depoliticized" aestheticist attitude. That it to say, when, in his conversations with the journalists of Cahiers du cinema, KUSTURICA insisted that Underground is not a political film at all but a kind of liminal trance-like subjective experience, a "deferred suicide," he thereby put on the table his true political cards. But how?

The eminent English Wagnerian John DEATHRIDGE emphasized the remarkable fact that HILTER's favorite WAGNER opera was neither the overtly German Meistersinger nor Lohengrin with its call to arms to defend Germany against the Eastern hordes, but rather Tristan with its tendency to leave behind the Day -- the daily life of symbolic obligations, honors, debts, etc. -- and to immerse oneself in the Night, to embrace ecstatically one's death. This "aesthetic suspension of the political" (to paraphrase KIERKEGAARD) was at the very core of the phantasmatic background of the Nazi attitude: at stake in it was something more than politics, an ecstatic aestheticized experience of Community best exemplified by the nightly rituals during Nuremberg rallies. And my thesis is that KUSTURICA's Underground stages this same "apolitical" phantasmatic background of the Yugoslav ethnic cleansing and war cruelties. Again, how?

Let us begin with some of the journalistic cliches about the Balkan and post-Yugoslav war. One often hears the warning that, in the case of the Bosnian war, one should avoid the cliche of the demonization of the Serbs. However, apart from the fact that his warning itself (based on the tendency to maintain an "equidistance" towards all sides in the conflict "one cannot put all the blame only on one side; in this fraternal orgy of tribal killing, nobody is innocent") is one of the main cliches about the Bosnian war, it is interesting to discern, in this ambiguous demonization, the gap between the "official" and the true desire. That is to say, in this very "official," public condemnation of Serbs and compassion for Bosnians, Serbs are perceived as invincible warriors and winners, while Bosnians are confined to the role of suffering victims, and the main endeavor of the West is to keep undisturbed this underlying phantasmatic frame. For that reason, the moment the Serbs began to lose on the battlefield, the West instantly stepped up the pressure and ended the war. The Bosnians had to remain the victims. The moment they were no longer losing, the perception of them changed into that of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists... The truth of the so-called "demonization of the Serbs" resided in the fascination with their victims, which was clearly perceptible in the Western attitude towards horrifying pictures of mutilated corpses, of wounded and crying children, etc. They were horrified by them, yet at the same time they "couldn't avert their eyes."

The other predominant journalistic cliche is that the Balkan people are caught in the phantasmatic whirlpool of historical myths. KUSTURICA himself endorses this view, here, in a quote from his interview for Cahiers du cinema, "In this region, war is a natural phenomenon, It is like a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake which explodes from time to time. In my film, I tried to clarify the state of things in this chaotic part of the world. It seems that nobody is able to locate the roots of this terrible conflict." What we find here, of course, is an exemplary case of "Balkanism" that functions like Edward SAID's "Orientalism" -- the Balkans as the timeless space on which the West projects its phantasmatic content. Before the Rain by Milche MANCHEVSKI, the Macedonian film that was nominated for an Oscar in 1995, although politically the opposite of Underground, participates in the same attitude. It offers to the Western gaze what it likes to see in the Balkans -- a mythical spectacle of eternal, primordial passions, of the vicious cycle of hate and love, in contrast to the decadent and anemic life in the West....

In other words, this mythical image of the "Balkans" is faked, mediated by the Western gaze; it already involves a cynical distance. How does cynicism work today? In one of his letters, FREUD refers to the well-known joke about the newlywed who, when asked by his friend how his wife looks, how beautiful she is, answers, "I personally don't like her, but that's a matter of taste." The paradox of this answer is that, in it, the subject pretends to assume the standpoint of universality from which "to be likable" appears as an idiosyncrasy, as a contingent "pathological" feature which, as such, is not to be taken into consideration. And our point is that one encounters the same "impossible" position of enunciation in contemporary "postmodern" racism. When asked about the reasons for their violence against foreigners, neo-Nazi skinheads in Germany suddenly start to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, etc. This is what LACAN had in mind when he claimed that "There is no metalanguage." What skinheads assert is a lie even if, or rather precisely insofar as, it is factually true. Their assertions are belied by their very neutral, disengaged position of enunciation from which the victim is able to tell the objective truth about itself. This impossible position of enunciation characterizes the contemporary cynical attitude: in it, ideology can lay its cards on the table, reveal the secret of its functioning, and still continue to function.

And since the reference to the "deep ethnic and religious roots" of the ethnic cleanser has exactly the same status, one should avoid the trap of "trying to understand." The main source of mystification of the Bosnian war is that everybody tries to "understand" it. One of the cliches about it is that, in order to explain what is going on, one has to be acquainted with at least the last five hundred years of history, with its bric-a-brac of wars, religious and ethnic conflicts... This compulsive evocation of the "complexity" of the situation serves to maintain the quasi-ethnological gaze on the Balkans, i.e., the distance of the Western observers towards the Balkans as a phantasmatic place. In other words, the events in the former Yugoslavia prove the inherent stupidity of the well-known wisdom, "to understand is to forgive." What one should do is precisely the opposite; with regard to the post-Yugoslav war, one should accomplish a kind of inverted phenomenological reduction and put in parentheses the multitude of meanings, the wealth of specters of the past that allow us to "understand" the situation. One should resist the temptation to "understand" and accomplish a gesture homologous to that of cutting off the sound of a TV-receiver. All of a sudden, the movements of the persons on the screen, deprived of their vocal support, appear as meaningless, ridiculous gesticulations... It is only such a suspension of "comprehension" that renders possible the analysis of what is at stake economically, politically, and ideologically in the post-Yugoslav crisis, i.e., of the political calculi and strategic decisions that led to the war.

The first thing to do is thus to call into question the innocent gaze of liberal and democratic Europe on the Balkans -- this gaze in which the Balkans appear as a kind of exotic spectacle that should either be tamed or quarantined; the place where the progress of history is suspended and where one is caught in the circular-repetitive movement of savage passions; the place where the symbolic link is simultaneously suspended (dozens of broken cease-fires) and reinforced (the old warrior notions of honor and pride). As is always the case with fantasies, our relationship to this place is deeply ambiguous -- the strange mixture of repulsion (towards the horrors which occur down there) and attraction (exotic fascination with the spectacle of authentic passions, in contrast to the aseptic and impotent life in the West). As one of my American friends told me not so long ago, "Down there, in the Balkans, it is still possible truly to love and hate. Down there, sex is still true sex, even if it is a brutal rape, while in the United States, more and more, sex is in front of the computer or TV screen, sex with a condom, sex which follows the self-help manuals....

HEGEL said that true Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives evil everywhere around itself. This idea directly concerns the Balkan war -- not only the gaze of the "ethnic cleansers" who perceive every trace of cultural or religious alterity as a threat to one's identity, but also the neutral-rational-liberal-multiculturalist gaze on the Balkans as the place of "nationalist madness," of the vortex of primitive passions that threaten to engulf the entirety of Europe and of the "ethnic virus" from which civilized Europe was long ago cured. Evil also resides in the neutral gaze which, from its "open" multiculturalist position, deplores the nationalist closure of the Balkan "tribal passions." In other words, what one should call in question is the entire field of opposition between multiculturalist universalism and nationalist particularism. What these two opposed poles -- the Europe of coordination and pragmatic negotiations and the Balkans of primordial passions -- both exclude, is simply, the political as such, the antagonisms and social struggles of today's capitalism.

The weak point of the universal multiculturalist gaze does not reside in its incapacity to "throw out the dirty water without also losing the baby." It is deeply wrong to assert that, when one throws out the nationalist dirty water (the "excessive" fanaticism), one should be careful not to lose the baby of "healthy" nationalism, which guarantees the necessary minimum of national identity, and "excessive" (xenophobic, aggressive) nationalism. Such a common sense distinction is the most dangerous, because it reproduces the very nationalist reasoning that aims at getting rid of the "impure" excess. One is therefore tempted to propose a homology with psychoanalytic treatment, in which the aim also is not to get rid of the dirty water (of symptoms, of pathological tics) in order to keep safe the baby (the kernel of the healthy Ego), but rather to throw out the baby (to suspend the patient's Ego) in order to confront the patient with his "dirty water," with the symptoms and fantasies that structure his jouissance. In the matter of national identity, one should also endeavor to throw out the baby (the spiritual purity of the national identity) in order to render visible the phantasmatic support that structures the jouissance in the national Thing. And the merit of Underground is that it unknowingly renders visible this dirty water.

In what, precisely, does this "dirty water" consist? A personal experience revealed to me this "water", this -- to call it by its psychoanalytical name -- inherent obscenity of Power, in a most distastefully-enjoyable way. In the 70s, I did my (obligatory) army service in the old Yugoslav People's Army, in small barracks with no proper medical facilities. In a room that also served as sleeping quarters for a private trained as a medical assistant, once a week a doctor from the nearby military hospital held his consulting hours. On the frame of the large mirror above the wash-basin in this room, the soldier had stuck a couple of postcards of half-naked girls -- a standard resource for masturbation in those pre-pornography times, to be sure. When the doctor was paying us his weekly visit, all of us who had reported for medical examinations were seated on a long bench alongside the wall opposite the wash-basin and were then examined in turn. So, one day while I was also waiting to be examined, the doctor was looking at a young, half-illiterate soldier who complained of pains in his penis (which, of course, was in itself sufficient to trigger obscene giggles from all of us, the doctor included). The skin of its head was too tight, so he was unable to draw it back normally. The doctor ordered him to pull down his trousers and demonstrate his trouble; the soldier did so and the skin slid down the head smoothly, though the soldier was quick to add that his trouble occurred only during erection. The doctor then said, "OK, then masturbate, get an erection, so that we can check it!" Deeply embarrassed and red in the face, the soldier began to masturbate in front of all of us but, of course, failed to produce an erection. The doctor then took one of the postcards of half-naked girls from the mirror, held it close to the soldier's head and started to shout at him, "Look! What breasts, what a cunt! Masturbate! How is it that you don't get an erection? What kind of a man are you? Go on, masturbate!" All of us in the room, including the doctor himself, accompanied the spectacle with obscene laughter. The unfortunate soldier himself soon joined us with an embarrassed giggle, exchanging looks of solidarity with us while continuing to masturbate... This scene brought about in me an experience of quasi-epiphany: in nuce, there was everything in it, the entire dispositive of Power -- the uncanny mixture of imposed enjoyment and humiliating exercise of power, the agency of Power which shouts severe orders, but simultaneously shares with us, his subordinates, an obscene laughter, bearing witness to a deep solidarity... One could also say that this scene renders the symptom of Power -- the grotesque excess by means of which, in a unique short-circuit, attitudes that are officially opposed and mutually exclusive reveal their uncanny complicity, where the solemn agent of Power suddenly starts to wink at us across the table in a gesture of obscene solidarity letting us know that the thing (i.e. his orders) is not to be taken too seriously and thereby consolidating his power.

What we have here is a set of unwritten obscenity rules that supplements the public, official discourse of Power. Does one not encounter the same set at the other end of modern history, in the life of English colleges as depicted in numerous memoirs and, among others, in Michael ANDERSON's film If? Beneath the civilized, open-minded, liberal surface of daily life in these colleges, with its dull but charming atmosphere, there is another world of brutal power relations between younger and elder pupils -- a detailed set of unwritten rules that prescribes the ways elder pupils are allowed to exploit and to humiliate in different ways their younger peers, all in an atmosphere pervaded with "prohibited" sexuality. We do not have the public "repressive" rule of law and order undermined by undercover forms of rebellion, mocking the public authority, etc., but rather its opposite. The public authority maintains a civilized, gentle appearance, whereas beneath it there is a shadowy realm in which the brutal exercise of power is itself sexualized. And the crucial point, of course, is that this obscene shadowy realm, far from undermining the civilized semblance of public power, serves as its inherent support. It is only by way of the initiation into the unwritten rules of this realm that a pupil is able to participate in the benefits of school life and the penalty for breaking these unwritten rules is much harsher than for breaking the public rules.

This distance between the public-written law and its obscene superego supplement also enables us to demonstrate clearly where cynicism -- cynical distance as the predominant form of ideological attitude of the late capitalist subject, falls short. A cynic mocks public law from the position of its obscene underside which, consequently, he leaves intact. Insofar as the enjoyment that permeates this obscene underside is structured in fantasies, one can also say that what the cynic leaves intact is the fantasy, the phantasmatic background of the public-written ideological text. Cynical distance and full reliance on fantasy are thus strictly codependent. The typical subject today is the one who, while displaying cynical distrust of any public ideology, indulges without restraint in paranoiac fantasies about conspiracies, threats, and excessive forms of enjoyment of the Other.

Here, however, one should be careful to avoid a fateful confusion. This set of obscene unwritten rules has nothing whatsoever to do with the so-called implicit, impenetrable background of our activity, i.e., with the fact that, as Heideggerians would have put it, we, finite human beings, are always "thrown" into a situation and have to find ourselves in it in a way that can never be formalized into a set of explicit rules. Let up recall another film that stages the obscene ritual of Power, Stanley KUBRICK's Full Metal Jacket. What we get in its first part is the military drill -- direct bodily discipline, saturated by a unique blend of the humiliating displays of power, sexualization and obscene blasphemy (at Christmas, the soldiers are ordered to sing "Happy birthday dear Jesus...") -- in short, the superego machine of Power at its purest. As for the status of this obscene machine with respect to our everyday life-world, the lesson of the film is clear: the function of this obscene underworld of unwritten rituals is not to enable the official "public" ideology to "catch on" or to start to function as a constituent of our actual social life. In other words, this obscene underworld does not "mediate" between the abstract structure of symbolic law and the concrete experience of the actual life-world. The situation is rather the inverse. We need a "human face," a sense of distance, in order to be able to accommodate ourselves to the crazy demands of the superego machine. The first part of the film ends with a soldier who, on account of his overidentification with the military ideological machine, "runs amok" and shoots first the drill sergeant and then himself. The radical, unmediated identification with the superego machine necessarily leads to a murderous passage a l'acte. The second or main part of the film ends with a scene in which a soldier (Matthew MODINE), who throughout the film, has displayed a kind of ironic "human distance" towards the military machine (on his helmet, the inscription "born to kill" is accompanied by the peace sign, etc.), kills, out of compassion, a wounded Vietcong sniper girl. He is the one in whom the interpellation by the military big Other has fully succeeded. He is the fully constituted military subject.

Full Metal Jacket also demonstrates the vocal status of these unwritten rules, as exemplified by the US Marine Corps' mesmerizing "marching chants." Are their debilitating rhythm and sadistically sexualized nonsensical content not an exemplary case of the consuming self-enjoyment in the service of Power? Underground also brings to the light of day the obscene "Underground" of the public, official discourse (represented in the film by the Titoist Communist regime). One should bear in mind that the "Underground" to which the film's title refers is not only the domain of "deferred suicide," of the eternal orgy of drinking, singing and copulating that takes places in the suspension of time and outside the public space. It also stands for the "Underground" workshop in which the enslaved workers, isolated from the rest of the world and thus misled into thinking that World War II is still going on, work day and night to produce arms sold by Marko -- the hero of the film who is also their "owner" and the big Manipulator, the only one who mediates between the "Underground" and the public world. KUSTURICA refers here to the old European fairy-tale motif of diligent dwarfs (usually controlled by an evil magician) who, during the night, while people are asleep, emerge from their hiding places and accomplish their work (set in order the house, cook the meals...), so that when, in the morning, people awaken, they find their work magically done. KUSTURICA's "Underground" is the last embodiment of this motif, which is found from Richard WAGNER's Rhinegold (the Nibelungs who work in their Underground caves, driven by their cruel master, the dwarf Alberich) to Fritz LANG's Metropolis, in which the enslaved industrial workers live and work deep beneath the Earth's surface to produce wealth for the ruling capitalists.

This dispositif of "Underground" slaves dominated by a manipulative evil Master takes place against the background of opposition between the two figures of the Master. On the one hand is the "visible" public symbolic authority and on the other is the "invisible" spectral apparition. When the subject is endowed with symbolic authority, he acts as an appendix of his symbolic title, i.e., he is the "big Other." The symbolic institution acts through him. Suffice it to recall a judge who may be a miserable and corrupted person, but the moment he puts on his robe and other insignia his words are the words of Law itself... Therein resides the ultimate lesson of the Freudian myth of parricide -- of the primordial father who, after his violent death, returns stronger than ever in the guise of his Name, as symbolic authority. If the real father is to exert paternal symbolic authority, he must in a way die alive. It is his identification with the "dead letter" of the symbolic mandate that bestows authority on his person, or, to paraphrase the old American racist slogan, "Only a dead father is a good father!" On the other hand, the "invisible" Master (whose exemplary case is the anti-Semitic figure of the "Jew" who, invisible to the public eyes, pulls the strings of social life) is a kind of uncanny double of public authority. He has to act in the shadow -- invisible to the public eye, irradiating a phantom-like, spectral omnipotence. On account of this unfathomable, elusive status of the kernel of his identity, the Jew is perceived as incastrable. The more his actual, social, public existence is cut short, the more threatening becomes his elusive phantasmatic ex-sistence. Suffice it to recall the anti-Communist right-wing populism that has been recently gaining strength in the ex-Socialist East European countries. Its answer to present economic and other types of hardships is that, although they have lost legal, public power, the Communists continue to pull the strings, to dominate the levers of effective economic power and to control the media and state institutions... The Communists are thus perceived as a phantasmatic entity a la the Jew. The more they lose public power and become invisible, the stronger their phantom-like total-presence and their shadowy effective control...

This phantasmatic logic of an invisible, and for that very reason all-powerful, Master was clearly at work also in the way the figure of Abimael GUZMAN, "Presidente Gonzalo," the leader of Sendero Luminoso in Peru, functioned prior to his arrest. The fact that his very existence was doubted (people were not sure if he actually existed or was just a mythical point of reference) added to his power. The most recent example of such a Master, qua invisible and for that reason all-powerful, is provided by Bryan SINGER's The Usual Suspects, a film centered on the mysterious "Keyser Soeze" -- a master criminal about whom it is not clear if he exists at all. As one of the persons in the film puts it, "I don't believe in God, but I'm nonetheless afraid of him." People are afraid to see him or, once forced to confront him face to face, to mention this to others. His identity is a highly kept secret. At the end of the film, it is disclosed that Keyser Soeze is the most miserable of the group of suspects, a limping, self-humiliating wimp, like Alberich in Richard WAGNER's Ring des Nibelungen. What is crucial is this very contrast between the omnipotence of the invisible agent of power and the way this same agent is reduced to a crippled weakling, once his identity is rendered public.

The unfortunate Marko from KUSTURICA's Underground is also to be located in this lineage of the evil magician who controls an invisible empire of enslaved workers. He is a kind of uncanny double of Tito as the public symbolic Master. However, the key question is, "How does KUSTURICA relate to this duality?" Here, the film becomes problematic. That is to say, the problem with Underground is that it falls into a cynical trap and presents this obscene "Underground" with a benevolent distance. Underground, of course, is multi-layered and extremely self-reflective. It plays with a mixture of cliches (the Serbian myth of a true man who, even when the bombs are falling around him, calmly continues his meal). It is full of references to the history of cinema, to VIGO's Atalanta, and to cinema as such (when the "Underground" war hero -- who is presumed dead -- emerges from his hiding place, he encounters cineasts shooting a film about his heroic death), as well as of other forms of postmodern self-referentiality (the recourse to the perspective of fairy tales: "there was once a land called..."; the passage from realism to pure fantasy; the idea of the network of Underground tunnels beneath Europe, one of them leading directly from Berlin to Athens...). All this, of course, is meant in an ironic way. It is "not to be taken literally." However, as we have already seen, it is precisely through such self-distance that the "postmodern" cynical ideology functions. Umberto ECO recently enumerated the series of features that define the kernel of the fascist attitude: dogmatic tenacity, the absence of humor, insensibility for rational argumentation... He couldn't have been more wrong. Today's neo-Fascism is more and more "postmodern," civilized, playful, and involving ironic self-distance...yet for all that, no less fascist.

So, in a way, KUSTURICA is right in his interview with Cahiers du cinema. He does somehow "clarify the state of things in this chaotic part of the world" by way of bringing to light its "Underground" phantasmatic support. He thereby unknowingly provides the libidinal economy of the Serbian ethnic slaughter in Bosnia: the pseudo-Bataillean trance of excessive expenditure, the continuous mad rhythm of drinking-eating-singing-fornicating. Therein lies the "dream" of the ethnic cleaners; therein resides the answer to the question, "How were they able to do it?" If the standard definition of war is "a continuation of politics by other means," then we can say that ethnic cleansing is the continuation of (a kind of) poetry by other means.

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