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That we live in strange times is clear. That we ourselves are becoming stranger and stranger is also clear. Our reality is buzzing and bursting at the seams. We respond to this in two ways that are more closely related than they appear: with a massive derealisation of reality and with an intense “realisation,” a reification of certain fictions.
It’s been a long time since a product of so-called mass culture has nailed this double logic as well as Adam McKay’s Netflix hit Don’t Look Up (2021). The film brilliantly exposes the prevailing reaction to the current situation where, in many ways, reality is falling apart and disappearing under our feet. Don’t Look Up is a comedy or satire that cuts very effectively into the affective charge and pomposity of the present, the flood of words and images that no longer touch any real—this, in turn, is the flip side of the direct reification of words, the perception of words as our only reality and the reduction of words to their “literal” meaning.
The plot is familiar: the film transposes the climate crisis and our (non)response to it into the figure of a giant comet approaching the Earth, crashing into and destroying it in a very near future, which can be calculated with high precision. The film immediately sparked controversy. Critics from CNN, the Guardian, the New Yorker and many other media outlets accused it of one crucial flaw: “In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.” The phrase comes from a CNN review, but similar statements can be found in other reviews. The point is symptomatic in many ways, including the bizarrely paternalistic attitude toward the ordinary “little people” whom the film should win to its cause but instead alienates. In this same vein the film is also accused of being condescending and scornful. But what could be more condescending and patronising than what these critics are implying, which is “I get the point, but ordinary people will not understand it because the movie does not reach out (or down?) to them.” Well, people thought otherwise and the opposite happened: the film did indeed alienate many sophisticated cultural critics, but it was a huge and unexpected success with “ordinary people.” There is a saying that reality is often more implausible than fiction. And you could say that Don’t Look Up demonstrates exactly that point extraordinarily well. But it also demonstrates that reality can be more comical and more hilarious than the most hilarious comedy: the “grotesque exaggeration” that the film is also accused of is actually our “normal,” everyday reality. We notice its grotesqueness only when we see it reproduced on the screen. And the more we laugh, the drier our laughter becomes. This is because, for all its unsubtle exaggeration and caricature, the film also rings too true, our reality is an unsubtle exaggeration and caricature of itself. Contrary to the opinion that the film would be more credible if it did not exaggerate and caricature so much, I think the opposite is the case: for all its exaggeration, the film barely keeps up with reality. That is what accounts for its credibility, and “the people” seem to have understood that very well.
Something else interesting happened. The critically trashed Netflix blockbuster about climate change was enthusiastically welcomed—by climate scientists! It’s quite funny, because it’s rare for science and “popular opinion” to come together in this way. But it’s not so strange when you consider that what the film so effectively portrays are feelings of frustration and powerlessness—something that both “the people” and climate scientists can easily relate to. It portrays powerlessness in the face of the derealization and theft of reality, a reality that most of us can only participate in as bystanders, having no real power to change or affect. The film has been accused, among other things, of being “blunt” and lacking subtlety, but again, what could be more blunt than our reality in which the threat of extinction does not move us at all? We domesticate “the end of the world” before it happens, and in this way we both derealize it and ensure that it will actually happen. Because the end of the world is not a fantasy. However, the fantasy of the end of the world (e.g., by depicting it from an external, bird’s eye view) is one of the ways in which we derealize the real end. I would argue that Don’t Look Up is not just another doomsday fantasy, of which there have been many in recent years. Rather, it is a film about our current collective fantasy being crashed by the reality of the end. Or, to put it another way, the film shows that the much-needed “collective response” to major crises exists today only as a formation of the unconscious.
Some critics have also claimed that the film lacks wit or is only marginally funny, especially when it takes on deniers and conspiracy theorists. One of Don’t Look Up’s greatest qualities, however, is precisely that it does not put conspiracy theorists at the center of the problem. The central (political and media) figures in the film are not simply characters à la Trump and Fox News anchors, but hit much closer to the so-called liberal mainstream. In fact, in the film we see the mainstream itself as a rather indistinguishable mix of the two, indistinguishable mainly because of the feature they have in common: the collusion of profit-making and power to create a kind of spectacular reality show, where all other “ideological” distinctions fade away. There is a scene in the Oval Office where we briefly see a framed photo on the president’s desk, a photo of her hugging Bill Clinton in a way that can be interpreted as friendly or perhaps “married.” A brief but significant allusion to Hilary Clinton: do we need any more direct evidence that the film is not making its job easier by simply taking Trump and Trumpism as its main targets (though, of course, there is no shortage of allusions to him either)?
The times are favorable to conspiracy theories, but it would be wrong to see them as the core and essence of the crisis of our society. Indeed, we miss the problem of conspiracy theories entirely if we fail to see their intrinsic albeit unconscious complicity with what passes for the opposite side, namely the “rational liberal mainstream.” While they fervently accuse and attack each other, there is a profound intrinsic connection between the two. And this is one of the most insightful points made by Don’t Look Up. The conspiracy theorists in the film are just one, rather peripheral, version of how we are not facing reality (the approaching comet). The prevailing societal response is by no means outright denial of the comet (or of the climate change), but the incorporation of the catastrophe into business as usual.
Let me use the term “elites” in what follows to refer the entanglement of economic, military, political, and media power which, in its synergy, de facto shapes our world and its future. In this sense the elites that play such a central role in conspiracy theories and their narratives undoubtedly exist, but conspiracy theories miss the way in which they operate.
Take the following extreme situation: suppose I can make a million dollars today on the fact that the world will end tomorrow. The common-sense question is, of course: and what am I going to do with that million dollars tomorrow, when the world ends? From the perspective of the End of the World, it makes absolutely no difference whether I make that million or not. Unless—and here’s the trick—earning that million is my way of efficiently disavowing the reality of the end (for myself). The effort to make a fortune off the end does not take place in spite of the fact that the world will end tomorrow, but rather constitutes a kind of (socio-economic) fetishistic ritual of derealization, of disavowing the reality of the end. As Freud taught us in his theory of fetishist disavowal, it would be wrong to portray the situation along following lines: while I rationally know how things really stand, I unconsciously keep believing something else (e.g. that there is no deadly comet), and I act accordingly. The point is that the fetish (in this case, making deals and profits) believes it for me, whereas I appear as “rational”, “cultured” and entirely liberated from the “stupid”, “irrational” belief (according to which there is no danger). What sustains for me the belief that there is no mortal danger is, on the one hand, my socio-economic activity/practice and, on the other, the conspiracy theorists, from whom I can conveniently distance myself and laugh at their “obvious craziness,” even though by and through my practical activity I unambiguously share the same “crazy” belief or disbelief (in the real danger).
This explanation seems far more convincing than simply referring to “irrational greed of the elites.” It has its own rationale, its own psychic economy, which is at the same time a social economy, or rather, one made possible by the existing social economy, its functioning in practice.
A very popular reference by conspiracy theorists is the movie The Truman Show, in which the audience of a giant reality show is entertained by watching its hero live his life without knowing he is part of a reality show. Every little bit of reality is staged for him, including the sky. Everyone in his world is there in order to create a fictional setting for this one person and to convince him of its reality and keep him confined within it. What is happening today is actually something quite different. First, elites are creating the fictional world primarily for themselves, not for us, for the “little man.” They stage it so that they can continue to believe that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, and that with a little ingenuity and some technological innovations, it can go on toward an even brighter future. But although they enact this in the first place for themselves, their crazy belief has an effect on us as well: as we watch them go about their business as usual, we too begin to believe that nothing is fundamentally wrong and that we just need to make some adjustments and adapt to the “new reality.” The Truman Show today is nothing else but the so-called real world of capital, stock exchanges, financial markets, transactions and bubbles that the elites—often with our help—set up mainly for themselves. These have a double benefit, a financial or material one, but also a psychological one, that of the fetishist disavowal of the real crisis. Meanwhile the real catastrophic effects take their toll mainly at the other end of the social ladder and mostly at the other end of the world.
Let us therefore look a bit more closely at the psychoanalytic notion of disavowal (Verleugnung). Disavowal is not the same as denial, it brings about a split between knowledge and belief, as formulated most concisely by Octave Mannoni: “I know very well (that X), but nevertheless (I don’t believe that X).”1 I keep behaving and acting as if I didn’t know what I know and what I’m able to clearly state as my knowledge. I know and am able to acknowledge some fact, yet the latter seems to be deprived of its reality and meaning. And it is also not simply that I need to unconsciously believe what I know to be otherwise; I don’t even need to do this, for the fetish believes it in my stead. As pointed out by Mannoni: whereas the phrase “I know very well, but all the same” is the trademark or signature of disavowal, fetishist will never say “but all the same” since his “but all the same” is his fetish.2 Belief is outsourced to the fetish, while we know perfectly well how things stand and are able to talk about it rationally.
To illustrate how the fetish works in disavowal, Slavoj Žižek recounts a story about a man whose wife was diagnosed with acute breast cancer and who died three months later; the husband survived her death unscathed, being able to talk coolly about his traumatic last moments with her—how? Was he a cold, distant, unfeeling monster? Soon, his friends noticed that, while talking about his deceased wife, he always held a hamster in his hands, her pet and now his fetish, the embodied disavowal of her death. When, a couple of months later, the hamster died, the man broke down and had to be hospitalized for a long period.3
I would argue that a further twist of this structure appears in contemporary ideology and in contemporary forms of disavowal. We could describe it as a configuration in which knowledge about some traumatic reality gets strangely redoubled, and starts to itself play the role of the object-fetish that protects us against this reality. From the hamster example Žižek concludes:
So, when we are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes in the proclaimed ideals, when we encounter a person who claims he has been cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question: OK, but where is your hamster – the fetish which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality “the way it is”? 4
The point I’m arguing is that, in an intriguing short-circuit, it is the knowledge itself that is our hamster today, enabling us to (supposedly) accept the reality that this knowledge refers to. Just think of how important it is today to declare that we are not naïve, deceived or duped by anything, how important it is to know “how things really stand,” to know what lies “behind” mere appearances, to know that the Other is unreliable and full of tricks, and above all to let others know that we know. We are much more concerned with the possibility of deception than with the traumatic dimension of the real. Even the craziest and weirdest conspiracy narratives are primarily anchored in this will not to be deceived. For example, the belief that the earth is flat is not really a quarrel about the shape of the earth, but an attempt to point out the massive deception that has been systematically going on for hundreds of years. It is not simply that flat earthers refuse science and scientific proofs, rather they refuse to be deceived, to be taken in by the “manipulation” of science.
The permutation in the structure of the disavowal thus also appears at the level of “but nevertheless,” which presupposes an opposition, a contradiction. The structure of fetishist disavowal (“I know very well, but I nevertheless continue to believe the opposite”) mutates into “I know very well, and this is why I can go on ignoring it.” Or: I see it, I acknowledge it, and this is enough, now I can now forget about it.
In a kind of folding over itself, knowledge takes the structural place of the fetish that helps us to ignore some traumatic reality. The only thing that’s important is that we “know everything about it,” that we are “nobody’s fools,” and that we let others know that we know this. Letting others know, proclaiming and flagging our knowledge is a crucial element. (And the apocalyptic stage scenery, the rhetoric of the end, is part of that setup.)
We also have a great example of this structure of disavowal in Don’t Look Up. At one point in the movie, the following magazine headline appears: The end is near. Will there be a Super Bowl? This formulation neatly renders the gist of the configuration much better than a direct denial would; for instance, if the headline read: There is no deadly comet, it’s all a lie, a conspiracy! It’s almost as if the first part of the sentence—the declared “knowledge” about the end, the approaching deadly comet—needed to be there in order for us to peacefully talk about the Super Bowl. All we want to do is to discuss the Super Bowl, and the acknowledgment of the apocalypse functions as kind of obligatory courtesy, like greeting the other and asking them how they are, before starting a real conversation. But precisely as a pure formality, this first part is essential for the operation of disavowal (it could not be simply left out); its declaration is what makes the “business as usual” attitude of discussing the Super Bowl possible.
To sum up: the important point that McKay’s film makes very palpable is that—contrary to what we like to think—disavowal does not simply take place on the side of conspiracy theorists and the “blind masses,” but perhaps primarily on the side of the “elites,” the (supposedly) “rational” mainstream, the wielders of economic and political power. Conspiracy theories are rather a symptom or, I would argue, an embodiment of the grotesque unconscious of the elites. And the elites need conspiracy theorists precisely in order to point their finger at them, to contrast the conspiracists’ craziness with their own supposed rationality, and thus make us blind to their madness. Which is why, albeit usually abhorring each other, elites and conspiracy theorists often function in a strange complicity.
Conspiracy theories are right on one point: elites like it when there is a threat in the air, and they like to cash in on that threat, both ideologically and economically (for instance, by making huge amounts of money with strategies of preventing or attending to it). Yet in order to profit from the threat, they must not fully and genuinely believe in its reality and danger, despite all their rhetoric. In other words, they need to disavow it, to continue to behave—in their everyday business life—as if the danger were not really real, or not all that threatening. For conspiracy theorists this constitutes yet another “objective” proof that the danger doesn’t exist at all, and is merely being fabricated and staged by elites in order to subdue the masses and make more money. The reasoning goes as follows: since the elites clearly don’t really believe in the danger, continuing with business as usual, there really is no danger. “The elites are not crazy,” goes the argument, they know exactly what they are doing, the whole thing is a Masterplan. And it is this very presupposition that makes it possible for the elites to continue to de-realize the danger, to disavow the catastrophe which they themselves are largely responsible for. Herein resides the key mistake of conspiracy theories, a mistake to which we would have to respond in the following manner: No, it’s even worse! The elites really are so crazy (not to take the danger seriously). And this is precisely why we should be truly scared. No, they don’t know what they are doing, they have no Masterplan beyond keeping themselves in business.
Instead, conspiracy theorists tend to confound the unconscious of the elites, their pathological madness posing as “rationality” (“the danger is manageable by our usual means”), with objective reality. In this way conspiracy theorists are basically staging and embodying the unconscious of the elites, that is, the madness on which their “rationality” leans, in what is a classic case of disavowal. No wonder that elites tend to regard conspiracy theories with horror: it is certainly distressing to see your own unconscious “return in the real,” to see it exist out there, in the world. But it’s also very handy to be able to condemn these crazy Others from whose madness your “rationality” is allegedly saving the world.
In one simple slogan, the logic governing our contemporary world could be expressed as follows: conspiracy theory without conspiracy. Or perhaps: conspiracy theory without theory.
1 Octave Mannoni, “’I Know Well, but All the Same…’,” in Molly Anne Rothenberg, Denis Foster and Slavoj Žižek (ed.), Perversion and the Social Relation (sic 4), (Duke University Press, 2003).
2 Ibid., 70.
3 Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2008), 299.
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