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The new politics of truth

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two)
Slavoj Zizek
22 December 2005

 

When, on 2 November 2004, the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamist extremist (Mohammed Bouyeri), a letter was found stuck into a knife hole in van Gogh’s belly, addressed to his friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali member of the Dutch parliament known as a passionate fighter for the rights of Muslim women. If there ever was a “fundamentalist” document, this was it.

The true pearl is hidden in the last paragraph, in the form of a challenge to Hirsi Ali – it is a brutal assertion of the wish to die as the proof of one’s truthfulness:

“I challenge you with this letter to prove that you are right. You don’t have to do much for that, Mrs. Hirsi Ali: wish death if you are really convinced that you are right. If you do not accept this challenge, you will know that my Master, the Most high, has exposed you as a bearer of lies. … If you wish death, then you are being truthful”. But the wicked ones “never wish to die, because of what their hands (and sins) have brought forth. And Allah is the all-knowing over the purveyors of lies.” (2:94-95). To prevent myself from having the same wish come to me as I wish for you, I shall wish this wish for you: Master give us death to give us happiness with martyrdom.” (emphasis added)

Here we get an almost imperceptible shift which signals the presence of a perverse economy: from the readiness to die for the truth to the readiness to die as directproof of one’s truthfulness, which is in fact a motivation to die; from “if you are truthful, you should not fear death” to “if you wish death, you are truthful.” The passage ends in an astonishing taking-over of the other’s wish: “I shall wish this wish for you…” The underlying logic is complex enough: I will do this “to prevent myself from having the same wish that I have for you come to me.”

What can this mean? Is it not that, by wishing death, he is doing precisely what he wanted to prevent; doesn’t he accept the same wish (that of death) that he wishes for her (he wishes her dead)? So the final proclamation should not surprise us:

“This struggle which has burst forth is different from those of the past. The unbelieving fundamentalists have started it and the true believers will end it. There will be no mercy shown to the purveyors of injustice, only the sword will be lifted against them. No discussions, no demonstrations, no petitions: onlydeath will separate the Truth from Lies.”

Here the situation is pushed to an extreme: there is no symbolic mediation, no symbolic activity – the only thing that separates Truth from Lies is death, i.e., the truthful individual’s readiness and desire to die.

No wonder Michel Foucault was fascinated by Islamic political martyrdom: in it, he discerned the contours of what he called a new “regime of truth” radically different from our Western one, a regime based not on factual accuracy or the consistency of reasoning, but the readiness to die.

This, alas, is what awaits us in 2006 and, one must say, beyond: the struggle between a spurious “culture of life” (the way Christians formulate their refusal of the very core of human creativity) and a “culture of death,” both of which must be rejected in the name of any truly emancipatory politics.

 

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