12 July 2011

Zizek vs Assange

“First I treated you as not an idiot just out of politeness. Now I see you are really not an idiot!” Thus the philosopher Slavoj Žižek to Julian Assange, frontman of Wikileaks, last weekend. The two were on stage with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, in a beautiful 1930s cinema in East London. Two thousand seats at £25 each had been sold. Pouring out of Limehouse station an hour earlier, crowds of young hipsters had held iPhones up to the sky, in supplication to the gods of GPS.

On the eve of his 40th birthday, Assange was not overly concerned to minimize his place in “history”, a word that cropped up a lot in his calm, precise speech. (Though history, it appears, will now have to wait a while longer for his memoirs.) He talked of the Iraq war documents, Cablegate, and the “Arab Spring”. Prompted on the promised Bank of America leak, he announced darkly: “We are under a type of… blackmail in relation to these documents.” The audience murmured with conspiriological pleasure. He said: “Visa and Mastercard are instruments of US foreign policy.” Asked about his Swedish difficulties, Assange discussed the vagaries of the European Arrest Warrant system. He looked forward to the day when “technical young people”, with their “hands on the machinery” of large organizations, took control. The crowd applauded its prophet.

At one point Žižek exclaimed, to cheers: “If you are a terrorist, my God, what are then they who accuse you of terrorism?” The philosopher riffed, with spluttering comic abandon, on the themes of his latest book. Even if the Wikileaks material did not teach us anything new, Žižek insisted, it made it impossible any longer to pretend one didn’t know. He denied rumours of an association with Lady Gaga. (“My friends said: ‘You’re stupid. You should have said “No comment”.’”) Assange watched in calm amusement, forefinger to lips, peeking sideways at the audience. Goodman eyed Žižek as one might a precocious but unpredictable child. After one impressively scatological Žižekian joke, she said: “For that, we could be taken off the air.”

The road to Assange’s political utopia is reassuringly smooth: first you liberate the flows of “information” and render “sacrosanct” the “historical record”; then, “from that, justice flows.” It sounds nice. Žižek and Assange shared a touching man-hug at the end, before Assange was whisked away by his glamorous “staff”. The hipsters thronged back out onto the Commercial Road, blinking and getting out their iPhones.