Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Justice Deferred

The logic of humanitarianism as described by Fassin has the unique characteristic of being both bringing closer and pushing away the subjects at which it is directed and does so along a parallel track to Berlant's notions of cruel optimism. Where humanitarianism brings affectively strong images of suffering into our homes every night at 6:30 for our daily dose of empathy, it also at the same time always highlights the alterity of the people in those images. Our role as passive observer is highlighted not just by our relationship to the people in the images but also by the medium of television. We are always viewing through a filter.

Part of the work of this filter is to maintain the distance between us, the viewer of videos such as Kony 2012, and the people represented in them in order to obfuscate no just our complicity in producing the conditions represented in the videos, but in fact our investment in and desire for their continuation. In this sense it is cruel optimism reversed. We are not willing participating in a system that prevents our social mobility, but instead a system that preserves our social position precisely because it prevents the social mobility of others by continually reenacting historical colonial domination in new ways. If we are to take Fassin's position, When we participate in any form of activism, we are not just desiring to do good, or right some injustice, we are also desiring that injustice's continuation. Without it's continuation we would not be in the position to be "activists" and their would not be the potential for us to feel good about our actions. A more concrete example is provided by Slavoj Zizek in his book Organs without Bodies.

[In] Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the distopia about the "Republic of Gilead," a new state on the East Coast of the US which emerged when the Moral Majority took over. The ambiguity of the novel is radical: its "official" aim is, of course, to present as actually realized the darkest conservative tendencies in order to warn us about the threats of Christian fundamentalism - the evoked vision is expected to give rise to horror in us. However, what strikes the eye is the utter fascination with this imagined universe and its invented rules. Fertile woman are allocated to those privileged members of the new nomenklatura whose wives cannot bear children - forbidden to read, deprived of their names (they are called after the man to whom they belong: the heroine is Offred - "of Fred"), they serve as receptacles of insemination. The more we read the novel, the more it becomes clear that the fantasy we are reading is not that of the Moral Majority, but that of feminist liberalism itself: an exact mirror-image of the fantasies about the sexual degeneration in our megalopolises which haunts members of the Moral Majority. So, what the novel displays is desire - not of the Moral Majority, but the hidden desire of feminist liberalism itself.
The feminist liberal position, as Zizek notes, has the greatest raison d'etre and is at its most effectual at the apex of its opposition's power and it desires to reach this point. Our desire as "activists" is directed oppositely, in the direction of maintaining power, with our hidden desire being that we remain powerless to effect any real change.

This hidden desire is most evident in the rhetoric of the "asks" of activist organizations. In asking that you take some time today to help, they highlight both their nature as a middleman and the deferred manner in which help, justice, or whatever other promised good will be provided. Your donation today may feed a child tomorrow. The innovation of slactivism, and perhaps one of the reasons for the viral nature of its campaign's propagation, is that it attempts to eliminate the middleman role and produce the illusion of direct action. To recast Andrew's final statement from Tuesday from the perspective of the "slactivist," rather than the awaiting of an infinite justice, isn't the hope of this meeting of technology and mass protest precisely the hope of a heretofore deferred solidarity, and one that is achieved in the here and now? The messiah has come and we are him, but we are busy right now, ask us again tomorrow.

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