Shame, Lies, and WikiLeaks

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Slavoj Žižek weighs in on the WikiLeaks controversy with characteristic dialectical zig-zags ending in an apocalyptic vision.

He starts in one of his favorite places: American popular cinema. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s director, corresponds to the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In Nolan’s film district attorney Harvey Dent and police commissioner Gordon collude to cover up the truth about Dent’s vigilantism in order to preserve the social order of Gotham City. The Joker threatens to reveal the truth behind the lie that holds society together. Julian Assange, in the same manner, wants to reveal the truth behind the “necessary lie” conservative philosopher Leo Strauss identified as the glue that holds democracy together. In Strauss’s view, or rather in Žižek’s view of Strauss’s view, elites obscure the material relations of economic and political power from the gullible masses through soothing fables of social harmony.

Yet Assange only appears to have pulled back the curtains of the necessary lie. Žižek pins the “liberal ideology” of All the President’s Men and The Pelican Brief on WikiLeaks. The free flow of information, this line of thinking goes, is sufficient to speak truth to (and about) power.

For all its reformist zeal, however, WikiLeaks didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about the working of the American State Department. For Žižek,

The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises. Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know. This is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything.

We could see for ourselves that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a buffoon. It’s oddly comforting to find out that American diplomats think he is, too. But for Žižek, this is precisely the problem. We can no longer pretend that Berlusconi isn’t running a clown democracy, that we needn’t worry about a bullying moron taking over an industrialized nation through media manipulation.

Finally, we have the truth about the workings of American diplomats–or more accurately, one percent of the truth, if WikiLeaks’ extortionist threats are to be believed. Now what do we do? One thing we’re not doing, Žižek claims, is feeling ashamed about how we’re complicit with the corrupt power relations in the United States.

This is precisely our situation today: we face the shameless cynicism of a global order whose agents only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights and so on. Through actions like the WikiLeaks disclosures, the shame – our shame for tolerating such power over us – is made more shameful by being publicised. When the US intervenes in Iraq to bring secular democracy, and the result is the strengthening of religious fundamentalism and a much stronger Iran, this is not the tragic mistake of a sincere agent, but the case of a cynical trickster being beaten at his own game.

There must be a Hegelian term for when things get dodgy in the dialectic. First of all, in the U.S. we’ve already had our moment of shame and moved on to a particular form of apocalyptic anger in the form of the Tea Party and other loudly disgruntled groups. Žižek is no Tea Partier, but he shares their nihilism in his demands that the only honest way out of our shame is total revolution, the contours of which he neglects to provide.

Žižek is reading a lot of Hegel these days. Too bad he’s left behind his original intellectual mentor, Jacques Lacan, who would have dismissed the Tea Partiers as a bunch of hysterics and reminded Žižek the truth remains forever veiled, that whatever shame we may feel is actually a méconnaissance, a false recognition. Even the Joker has to subscribe to the necessary lie that his criminal schemes seek something real.



  1. I enjoy how you’ve turned Žižek’s analogy on him, because the Joker does live the biggest lie behind his makeup (but wait, maybe so does Juilian Assange?)
    I’m not convinced by Žižek that the leaks haven’t revealed “anything new.” Glenn Greenwald at has best outlined many examples and wrote today: “I’d be interested in hearing anyone who wants to argue that the WikiLeaks disclosures contain “nothing new” dismiss the actual revelations (here and here).” [citations below]
    And to take apocalypse in a different direction, I’m not sure that coming out “saying it in public changes,” as Žižek suggests, anything..
    Perhaps I’ve been reading a little too much Susan Sontag, but I feel all the horrible facts or statistics we hear are like the photographs Sontag writes about—only another spectacle for the masses to consume: “Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself.” Access to these leaks means people don’t look them up. When they hear about them, they go about their daily lives as if undisturbed.


  2. I agree that there have been some revelations in the WikiLeaks so far. For instance, a lot of people were surprised by how little the Chinese know about what the North Koreans are up to.
    I like the quote from Sontag. Walter Benjamin made a similar point: The dreaming collective is a lot happier with the illusions of change than with actual change.
    Although I disagree with him, Zizek has a point: it’s naive to think that the free flow of information will make everything better. At the same time, just because you won’t throw a bomb at the US Chamber of Commerce doesn’t mean you’re an accommodationist.
    I liked Zizek better when he was trying to sell Lacan to the public. Now he’s turned into an international scold.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kenny.


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