Johannes Scott – August 2023.
This writing explores the imaginary structure of the political with reference to music, sovereignty and democracy, and the Russia-Ukraine war. Section one, titled Enjoyment, highlights the role of displeasure for political enjoyment. Section two references music as agent for political unity. Titled Yellow Submarine, section three discusses pacifism in context to South Africa. Eurasia, section four, explores geopolitical strategy. The last section, Desire, summarises the political as social fantasy from the perspective of theoretical psychoanalyses.
1. The Green Pavilion, 2015. Irina Isayevna Nakhova. – Photo J Scott
2. Light and Darkness of Symbols, 2011. Dragoljub Raša Todosijević. – Photo J Scott
3. Light and Darkness of Symbols, 2011. Dragoljub Raša Todosijević – Photo J Scott
4. Light and Darkness of Symbols, 2011. Dragoljub Raša Todosijević. – Photo J Scott
5. Track and Field, 2011. Centurian MK3 tank, motor, treadmill, runners. Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla. – Photo J Scott
War and politics – the one names the other’s limit. What precedes the military arena is not armament, but the disarmament of the political arena. When the military arena reaches symbolic closure, what follows is either senseless implosion into brute madness or sensible return to the imaginary war of political fantasy. Therefore, it would be fair to argue that the proverbial antagonym ‘war versus peace’ is nothing but false hope, unwanted, because the war of politics must go on, armed, and without fulfilment. No one gives better figure to this paradox of political desire than the Rolling Stones, an English rock band, in their famous 1965 song, ‘I try, I try, and I try, but can’t get no satisfaction.’
Politics is desire for impossible wholeness – a collective fantasy march to fill the unbearable void in our ranks. In fact, we utterly enjoy this fantasmatic march to a destination that forever recedes beyond the horizon because, getting no satisfaction is the game of desire. Enjoyment, which is an unconscious desire that we most often experience as displeasure, is embedded in the game of fantasy. Enjoyment is also central to psychoanalytic theory, which is why psychoanalysis is today foremost in studies of political theory. For psychoanalyses, fantasy promises the impossible return to the pre-symbolic, primordial realm enjoyed at infancy. For political fantasy, the desire to retrieve, capture, or reconcile an idealised unity that is undeservedly enjoyed, stolen, or spoiled by the other.
For example, ideological slogans such as the totalitarian ‘All power to the Soviets,’ the populist ‘Make America Great Again,’ the fascist ‘Believe, Obey, Fight,’ and democratic ‘freedom and equality’ were all imaginarily conceived in political fantasy and, in one way or another, promote the retrieval of stolen enjoyment. Desire to regain the ‘lost paradise’ is here experienced as anticipated enjoyment.
Fantasy teaches us how to desire – how to sustain a seemingly endless march to a receding object of desire. In addition, fantasy creates political subjectivity and symbolic subordination – it keeps social reality intact. Moreover, it keeps the real antagonist at bay, the brute implosion of our social order. Therefore, it is of vital importance for our existential survival to give vigil attention on how we construct our collective fantasies because it not only regulates our behaviour and perception of social reality, but it also provides imaginary coordinates for coping with ongoing social and political problems.
Conclusively, there simply is no political heaven, goalposts always shift and demands remain forever compromised and unresolved. Therefore, alternative fantasies are often suggested such as the enjoyment of neutrality and pacifism, as once proposed by the musician John Lennon in his famous 1971 song, Imagine. The hymn-like melody suggests an indifferent world where all political systems are abandoned in favour of oneness. But as the Slovenian-born political philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek commented, to imagine the world lives as one is to imagine a totalitarian hell. In contentious conflict zones, the game of neutrality is a short-cut to catastrophe because it always benefits the aggressor.
Fantasy is sustained by various forms of collective physical enjoyment such as music played at political rallies and demonstrations. Unlike at formal musical performances where focus is on historical context of the type of music played, at political events focus is on ‘who’ is playing, to ‘whom,’ and ‘where’ – with less attention to ‘what’ is being played. Moreover, the music is not passively spectated, instead, the meaning of the music is actively and emotively imagined by political reception. The a-subjective dimension is foreclosed in favour of subjectivity with ideological function; for the participants, be it a protest, revolt or celebration, the music provides enjoyment of unity that creates the illusion of a ‘natural’ agenda. This collective experience orientates political desire and motivates symbolic obedience.
Because musical notes and melodies have symbolic structure, like that of words and phrases, these signifiers can be arbitrarily assigned to different social contexts to produce new meaning. For example, Richard Wagner’s music, which has symbolic structure particularly receptive to emotive ambiguity, was played at Nazi rallies for victorious euphoria. For the fascist participants, it unequivocally signified revival of their lost, mythical identity – the ultra-nationalist desire for supreme rule.
On the other hand, when the film director Francis Ford Coppola uses Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in his anti-war film Apocalypse Now, the meaning is ambivalent. For the youthful characters who play the music on helicopter-mounted loudspeakers while brutally assaulting their enemy below, the blazing gunship signifies the euphoria of untamed victory. For the cinematic audience, the diegetic scene is proleptic – it foretells of the euphoric madness of horror that awaits the naïve characters in their later combat mission. Whereas the first signifies enjoyment of fantasmatic fulfilment, as if the object of desire is now arrested, the latter, by means of ethical distancing, signifies enjoyment of symbolic emptiness.
The symbolic structure of the song Yellow Submarine, by the British musicians The Beatles, provides us with a figure for pacifism. The musical structure, using only five chords on the pentatonic scale as a marching rhythm for the nursery rhyme-like song, creates a festive, sing-along ballad for childhood preoccupation. Beatles member Paul McCartney recalled that they were writing a children’s song for a happy place; another member, George Harrison commented that the song is about an individual’s purity at birth and gradual corruption by society. The song celebrates adolescent nostalgia and desire for return to the naivety of infancy.
Symbolic for escapism, the song’s chant and chorus have been appropriated by students demonstrating against university authorities, the Vietnam war, and as recent as 2015 for protesting the UK general election result. The phrase ‘we all live in a yellow submarine’ has often been collectively chanted as ‘we all live in a fascist regime,’ creating a collective experience of unified resistance against order. In Freudian psychoanalytic terms, the participants revel in the overthrow of the dead father’s prohibitions, replacing these with the will of the hoard – like in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. Uncritical pacifism is a disavowal of the antagonism that constitutes the political arena.
The recent South African lead peace mission to the Russia-Ukraine war arena seemed like some or other egotistical, subversive trip in a ‘yellow submarine’ since it had already been established that politics failed and both sides were dug in for a protracted war. The peace mission did not acknowledge Ukraine’s demand that Russian forces withdraw from its internationally recognised territory. On the Russian invasion, South Africa claims neutrality, implying that Ukraine is not strong enough to win the war of resistance and therefore have no other option but to negotiate and accept territorial renunciations.
On the one hand, the South African position seems pacifist in stance. Pacifists would argue that the war is far away from us and since the frontline has become stable, Ukraine must cede to peace negotiations, accept the new territorial reality, and save the world from the food crises brought on by the war. What pacifists neglect to recognise is that it is precisely due to Western military support for Ukrainian that war in that region may end sooner than later. Without, it is likely Ukraine would have fallen, together with other non-aligned NATO countries such as Finland and Moldova. Ukraine, against all odds, resisted, received support, and succeeded in halting the overthrow of the current geopolitical formation.
On the other hand, a day after the invasion, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa blamed US President Joe Biden for not preventing the war by agreeing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand for an unconditional meeting. It is as nonsensical for pacifists to demand the presidents of Ukraine and Russia meet to negotiate a peace settlement because it is diplomatic convention that such negotiations first be conducted by lower-level bureaucrats.
Moreover, when recently asked in the South African parliament by the political opposition on whether President Putin will be arrested when he arrives in South Africa for his expected visit in late August, President Ramaphosa replied to the opposition better learn to speak Russian soon – the South African government intended to neutralise the international warrant of arrest against President Putin by granting him diplomatic immunity. Instead, a more convincing appeasement would have been for the government to invite President Zelensky to visit South Africa considering the military training Ukraine provided to the armed wing of the liberation struggle during the Apartheid era.
Russia enjoys pacifism, neutrality and alliance of many African countries that benefitted from Soviet support for liberation against Western imperialism. This support has intensified in the past decade in the form of the Wagnerians, a Russian mercenary organisation named after composer and theatre director Richard Wagner. The Wagner Group, whose flag carries the motto “Blood, Honour, Motherland, Courage,” coordinates Russian influence and needs of its African clients in exchange for mineral rights. Zizek argues it is the same anti-imperialist rhetoric that propagated pacifism when Nazi Germany tried to establish the Third Reich Empire in Europe. The Fascist regime assaulted its neighbours on the pretext that it was defending Europe against imperial domination from France and the UK.
This same anti-imperialist rhetoric consolidated the foundation of white Afrikaner domination in South Africa. Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the Union of South Africa was on a political mending course of uniting its previously opposing white populations, namely those of colonial Dutch and imperial British heritage. When Hitler invaded its neighbour Poland in 1939, Britain came to the rescue and declared war against Nazi Germany. Being semi-autonomous, the South African parliament had the choice to either remain neutral or enter the war as ally to Britain. The pro-British side under General Smuts won the vote. The nationalist opposition led by Hertzog, historically aligned to the Dutch-Boer pioneers who only four decades earlier lost their mineral-rich frontier ZAR to British monarchy, was embittered. With new anti-imperial impetus, youth organisations such as Ossewabrandwag, in the image of Fascist-Nazi Germany, laid the foundation to later white South African ultra-nationalist movements such as the militant Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging. What began as neutral, ended in subversive support for the antagonist.
South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu advocated the same view against neutrality while canvassing the world for economic sanctions and cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa. He famously quoted, “failing to take a position in conflicts between oppressors and the oppressed means to side with the oppressor.”
Psychoanalyst and Marxian expert, Slavoj Zizek takes a hard line on the egotism of pacifists. In a recent interview with Vazha Tavberidze, he recalls a statement by a member of Germany’s Left Party, in which she argues that Germany should not lose money, pay higher prices for energy, and endanger the welfare of their workers for a war far away. Zizek argues this stance to allow the market to dictate the strength of commitment to human rights is to accept misery and humiliation as the price for surplus enjoyment. He likens this not only to Donald Trump, who prospers because he stands for nothing but the motivation of material wealth, but also to Russian oligarchs and the lumpen-bourgeoisie.
In his recent article titled, ‘War in a World that Stands for Nothing,’ Zizek explains the lumpen-bourgeoisie is a counterpart to what Marx called the lumpen-proletariat: “an unthinking cohort susceptible to political manipulation because its members have no class consciousness or revolutionary potential of their own.” Unlike the proletariat, the lumpen-bourgeoisie emerged in the post-Soviet era, drives luxury cars and controls capital through excessive manipulation of state-owned assets. For Zizek, this class of complicit pacifists, not only outside Russia but also within, sustains Russia’s war engine. Ukraine fights not only for global freedom, but also in defence of Russian people against their President’s self-destructiveness, and, according to Zizek, “That’s why the heart of every true Russian patriot beats for Ukraine.”
During a meeting with young scientists and entrepreneurs three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Sarah Rainsford reports for the BBC that President Putin lectured these young Russian entrepreneurs on his admiration for the 18th century Tsar, his role model, Peter the Great. When Peter the Great forged the new Russian empire, he told his audience, you might think he was at war with Sweden, seizing their land, “But he seized nothing; he reclaimed it!” President Putin explained that, at the time, not one European country recognised Russia’s claim to the land where Peter created St Peterburg, “Now they all do.” The Baltic country Estonia, now a member of NATO, immediately condemned Putin’s statement about reclaiming territory, referring to the Russian Empire’s assault on the Swedish city Narva, now part of Estonia.
A few months before the assault on Kyiv, the Russian president wrote an essay denying Ukraine’s right to exist, explaining that Ukraine is a product of the Soviet Union. It has also been reported that Putin, a former Soviet agent, believes the biggest loss to Russia was the West’s dismantling of the Soviet Union. While the slogan “future – confidence – victory” flashed on a screen in the lecture hall, the president explained that only sovereignty provides surety of land ownership. There is no in-between, no intermediate state, “either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what colonies are called.” This argument has been read as a dire warning to previous territorial assets of both the Soviet Union and Russian Empire, such as the Baltic states, Kosovo, Finland, Bosnia Herzegovina, and ultimately, the entire Eastern Europe, from the Black Sea to the Baltics.
In his article, Zizek speculates that Russian strategy seems to duplicate the old nazi-fascist geopolitical ambition of controlling the combined territory of Eastern Europe and Russia, namely Eurasia. Located in the middle, the fascist idea was to be the power of balance between western individualism and eastern collectivism; today, it is the strategic location from where to control the global supply of energy and food. In addition, reminding us of the reason why Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland from Denmark, Zizek argues the economic strategy is to profit from global warming by establishing an Artic Sea passage between west and east, running north of Russia and Scandinavia. For Russia to control this new global trade route, Scandinavian countries must be separate from NATO and Western Europe divided between American and Russian influence. This geopolitical ambition is grounded in historical resentment against the enjoyment, development, and invasions by regional powers surrounding Russian territory – invasions such as those by Sweden, Mongolia, China, Napoleon, and Hitler.
“Fascism is not an ideological, but moral development,” writer and poet Dmitry Bykov recently told Radio Liberty. “This is the case of resentment, or slave mentality, when people consider themselves offended, morally inadequate for a long time, and begin to revenge the entire world,” based on this resentment. The idea that Russia is the eternal victim of European enjoyment, Zizek argues, was first formulated by the Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment. An advocate for Pan Slavic liberation, Dostoevsky promoted the restoration of the Byzantine Empire under Russian Orthodox control and unification of the Russian Empire. But to really understand Russia today, Zizek argues, one needs to read no further than President Putin’s Kremlin philosopher, Ivan Ilyin.
Previously exiled by Lenin for his admiration of fascism, President Putin retrieved Ivan Ilyin’s remains and reinterred him at a cemetery near Red Square’s famous mausoleum; reprinted some of his books and distributed these to libraries throughout Russia. During the past 15 years, Ilyin’s image has become synonymous to Russian patriotism. As recent as during last year’s annexation speech of Ukrainian regions, President Putin quoted from books by Ilyin, which he got introduced to in the early eighties while operating as KGB spy in pro-Soviet East Germany.
Ilyin was a prophet philosopher who envied Mussolini for inventing fascism, hailed Hitler for preventing Germany from becoming a pro-Soviet Communist state, prophesised the fall of the USSR, and warned of the existential threat an independent Ukraine has for Russia. After WWII and the fall of Bolshevik communism, Ilyin advocated for a revised ideology of fascism embedded by Russian orthodox Christianity.
Looking at Russia today, we see a prototype for Ilyin’s neo-fascist state. Russia today is a centralised, neoconservative state, ruled by a militant, omnipotent leader who, like Roman Mussolini, evokes the myth of a previous golden age marred by imperial greatness. Elections, Ilyin argued, are simply a formality to confirm the public’s respect to its leader. Like Italian fascism, the goal is to launch quasi-state capitalism reliant on nationalised companies for the distribution of resources and ‘buying’ of electoral loyalty with social and infrastructure projects. Moreover, the current ‘special operations’ by Russia to negate Ukraine’s statehood and territorial integrity trumpets Ilyin’s warning.
This prospective Eurasian empire, with ideological linkage to Orthodox Christianity and politics reminiscent to the nationalist authoritarianism of Europe in the 1930’s, Zizek argues, is today Russia’s improvised form of fascism. Like with the twenty-one years of war it took Peter the Great to establish the Russian Empire and Hitler’s repeated WWII blitzkrieg operations, the establishment of Eurasia will last only so long as it can produce and win new wars. Only a strong united NATO, Zizek argues, can counter this offensive and prevent Europe from descending into years of ongoing wars. Henry Kissinger, not so long ago, made a similar prediction when he suggested NATO membership for Ukraine to both protect and restrain it against Russia. Russia, he said, is a territorial swamp that can be ruled either from Moscow or Odessa, the Ukrainian port in the Black Sea.
In summary, fantasy sustains our desire for unity, which is an impossible object of desire since wholeness is an inaccessible ideal. Fantasy sustains this desire by sublimation – by providing us with some or other sublime object as semblance to take the place of the impossible object of desire. In addition, we participate collectively in fantasy – in the promise that the semblance is as enjoyable as the real unobtainable thing.
Political fantasy provides us with a semblance to enjoy in the place of political unity. This imaginary semblance is often given in the image of political sovereignty. In other words, this desire for political unity is regulated by an imaginary image – an image of sovereignty in which we recognise ourselves, and towards which we enjoy our ideological march, and according to which we shape social reality. However, the outcome is problematic because image can only be recognised by similitude. Sameness disavows the antagonism that constitutes the political arena.
For example, we discussed two such disavowals of politics, namely pacifism in the figure of the Yellow Submarine, and militarisation of politics in the dramatic figure of Wagner’s music. On the latter, we close with a rudimentary, medieval example of how the image of sovereignty subverts the political.
Subjects of the medieval Holy Roman Empire imagined their collective unity in the sublime image of holiness, a supreme sovereignty they desired to retrieve after the fall of the ancient Roman Empire; and legitimised it by sublimation in the fantasmatic enjoyment of sovereign crowning. Ideological difference such as Reformation was intolerably met by militant force; recruitment of Crusaders to capture Jerusalem (‘undeservedly’ enjoyed by others) was driven by the image of absolution and eternal glory. Ultimately, political power was totalitarian, and the presence of sovereign ruled forged feudal reality. As for the loyal subjects, they enjoyed recognising themselves in the image of the sovereign – his desire was their desire – and this desire sustained only as long as the political image remained frozen.
To exchange disavowal for avowal, political fantasy must shape another kind of scenario, one in which enjoyment of imaginary image is exchanged for the enjoyment of symbolic difference – by definition, the symbolic can be identified only by difference, not similarity. For transformation of desire from reflected image to symbolic recognition, psychoanalyses give the following example. The egocentric toddler thinks it recognises its true self in the mirror object (in the same way that juvenile consumers recognise themselves in objects of fashion) and freezes, waiting for its semblance to make the first move so it can obediently rise to the image and unite in wholeness. But image is precisely what the adolescent must surrender in exchange for symbolic recognition – symbolic relations of difference with other social subjects.
The Biblical figure in Revelations of a chimeric beast with many heads that rule as political entity over different tribes, peoples, and languages is an apt metaphor for a political body that embraces symbolic order as a way of organising society. The European Union today represents such a chimera constituted by many heads that, within the political body, are recognised by nothing more than symbolic difference. Unlike the sovereign fascist, the chimera has no identifiable image that can forge presence of exclusive, wholesome identity – the political chimaera is truly empty of content. The EU’s desire for wholeness is symbolic – an emptiness that can never be satisfied. Enjoyment here shifts from image of similitude to ongoing political participation in the internal relations of difference between symbolic subjectivities such as equality and freedom. This is not an enjoyment for fullness of sovereign image, but an enjoyment of emptiness. This desire for symbolic unity can be named democracy. This political fantasy avows political difference and can sustain our desire for unity.
The Algerian-born French intellectual Jacques Derrida famously poeticised democracy as something messianic that never has presence, is always deferred, and always remains to be thought and to come. Sovereignty tries to forge an image of oneness through the equality claim of one-person-one-vote, but in the process, it disavows the political freedom of otherness. Instead, Derrida argues, freedom makes sense only if everyone is equally free, therefore, equality should not be a calculation of numbers but rather seen as an incalculable issue that remains transformative. For sustainability, the political body must maintain a distance to its symbolic object of desire to allow for the enjoyment of effective participation in the fragile, inner tensions and contradictions of a deferred wholeness – a democracy to come.
To put it differently, the enjoyment of political fantasy can be sustained only as long as we maintain distance between ourselves and the object of desire. In addition, the object of desire – unity – must be recognised as symbolic, meaning, it has no substance – it is void and empty at its core – hence, it is an unobtainable object that can be approached only from the perspective of desire. This distancing can be compared to the way we appreciate and enjoy the symbolic beauty of a porcelain vase. We must orbit the vase at a safe distance in order not to shatter its fragile appearance – the surrounding, beautified shroud of a mask that it is. Because, when we are lured too near and break through the delicacy, we learn with horror that there is nothing behind the artifice, the potter skillfully wrapped the porcelain cloak around a hollow core of emptiness. It is in this way we can learn from the Rolling Stones song how to enjoy and sustain political desire – I try and try and try, but I can’t get no satisfaction.
Johannes Scott, an independent artist and writer, received the BA degree for theory of literature at the University of South Africa (2011); postgraduate studies in theory of drama (2013), narratology (2014), and critical theory (2015); specialising in the metafiction of J. M. Coetzee; Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction; Michel Foucault’s technologies of the self; and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics.