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Is Assange the "world-spirit embodied"? A Hegel scholar reports from the Žižek/Assange Troxy gig

WikiLeaks combats the hidden but constant brutality of institutionalized violence, not just by the news content it brings to light but by disturbing the formal functioning of power itself: it has the power to circumvent the oblique ways in which information flows and thereby rewrite the very rules which regulate how rules can be violated. The critical task is to keep this disruptive strength alive.
Petri Autio
9 July 2011

After firing off his rapid salvo of ideologico-critical nuggets on the 1st of July at Cadogan Hall in London, Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek revealed what he considers his favourite meeting between a famous thinker and a famous agent of change. The thinker in question was, of course, the great philosopher of freedom Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the protagonist Napoleon Bonaparte, the year 1806. Hegel, then on the cusp of completing his first major work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, long enthused about Napoleon as the "world-spirit embodied." That is to say precisely as an agent (a capable one, to be sure) only contingently thrust into the world's limelight, pursuing his own aims - mostly oblivious to the true extent of the societal changes the processes he nominally leads are engendering - but nonetheless producing emancipation in his wake.

It is only all too tempting to link this anecdote to the proceedings on the very next day, when Žižek (who is himself on the verge of completing a book on Hegel) met with the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, for a two-hour conversation moderated by the award-winning journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! The flow of the relaxed event, held at the Troxy in Eastern London in front of over 9000 online viewers on top of the nearly 2000 present in the hall, was carefully balanced: Goodman set the scene clearly and posed questions about the past and present of WikiLeaks to Assange, Assange then gave measured and factual responses, after which Žižek was let loose to try and elucidate what he saw as the broader significance of WikiLeaks and the replies given.

Although the atmosphere at the Troxy was very genial, and Žižek generally enthusiastic about WikiLeaks (as he was in the London Review of Books article he published about it), there was a distinct tension between the rather standard Enlightenment rhetoric employed by Assange (more facts, a more complete historical record, better educated journalists)  and the significantly more radical conclusions the philosopher was drawing. This is why - whilst it should no doubt be read in a similar light as Žižek’s own remarks on his position during the conversation (I feel now like that Stalinist commentator: the leader has spoken, I provide the deeper meaning) - the ventured analogy nevertheless contains a kernel of truth beyond its bombast: defining the emancipatory significance of phenomena should not be left to the actors alone.

To illustrate: in response to Goodman's initial question on the significance of the Iraq war logs, Assange primarily emphasized the concrete revelations WikiLeaks had provided. He mentioned the 400.000 cables leaked, 15.000 previously unreported deaths revealed, a video of an American helicopter mowing down civilians, and so on. In contrast, Žižek went far enough to say that even if WikiLeaks had not revealed a single new thing, it should be considered game-changing. Why? Because of the very way it functions. For the philosopher, our democracies not only have rules regarding what can be revealed, but also rules which regulate the transgression of those first rules (the independent press, NGOs, etc). The contention then is that WikiLeaks operates outside both these sets of rules, and that there is the source of its power.

In this way, the reply was firmly anchored in the key trope Žižek has championed since his first major work in English: that ideology in today's "post-ideological" world is not dead, but rather more powerful than ever - alive not so much on the level of knowledge but in the ways it structures social reality itself. In other words, we can play a game of where I know that you know (about, say, the everyday violence that underpins our free society), and you know that I know, although only so far. Once confronted with information in a naked enough way, the we (the public) can no longer ignore its false cynical distance to it. Or so Žižek contended using as an example the difference between a husband knowing abstractly about his wife’s infidelity contrasted with the visceral reaction to seeing a picture of the act itself. WikiLeaks, he argues, does just this.

That Wikileaks is disruptive is amply shown by the vast reaction against it, whether through the calls (which Goodman listed) to label Assange a terrorist and assassinate him, in the financial blockade enacted by Mastercard and Visa (which, as Assange pointed out, have been deemed unlawful), or by the seemingly extralegal way his extradition is being handled. Here, Žižek points out, the innocence of the accusers is anything but innocent; they decry the violence of WikiLeaks revelations, themselves oblivious to the military, economic, political and social framework of everyday violence that goes unmentioned in public discourse. The violence of leaks is on a formal level, and precisely this is at the root of the Slovene’s exclamation to Assange: “Yes, you are a terrorist, but by God, then what are they?”

By casting WikiLeaks as a emancipatory, even heroic, phenomenon under constant threat we get to the true import of the initial analogy: just as the French armies did not fully bring the kind of lasting social liberation many expected from them, and just as Hegelian philosophy was grossly distorted and misappropriated after his death, the danger remains that whatever disruptive power WikiLeaks has will be defused, or even hijacked to work against its original liberating potential. If this is so then what, precisely, can be done to prevent this?

Sadly, sharp answers were lacking at the Troxy and time ran out before the audience could grill the all-too-friendly participants with questions. Žižek did voice his main concern, however: the risk of WikiLeaks being directly domesticated into the functioning of the official system via a rhetoric of accepting the project’s principle whilst only allowing the ‘right’ figures to run it.

This I would nonetheless take away as the key message: WikiLeaks should not be seen as merely another chapter in investigative journalism and free flow of information, but a positive, subversive emancipatory force by virtue of the way it operates outside the system of secrets and allowed revelations. What then remains ahead is the hard task of keeping this subversive strength alive. Remember, by 1814 Hegel had re-appraised the great emancipatory power he had once encountered, as a "genius destroyed by mediocrity."

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