To a Western European with a vague knowledge of Italian, “Manipur” automatically associates with “mani pulite” (pure hands), the big anti-corruption campaign in the early 1990s that changed the whole Italian political scene and ended with the rise of Berlusconi to power.
In Manipur, a small Indian state bordering on Myanmar, ethnic violence is now getting close to a civil war: its two largest groups, the majority Meitei and the minority Kuki, battle over land and influence. Meitei are Hindu, politically affiliated with the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) which also runs the state of Manipur, while Kuki are tribal Christians who live in forests. There is violence on both sides, but the main culprits are Meitei who want to push the Kuki out. What attracted the attention of the world is a shocking video of an attack on May 4, 2023 when two Kuki women were paraded naked by Meitei men and then gang raped shortly after their village was razed – a horrifying case of terror against women as a political instrument (the video was rendered public by one of the perpetrators themselves). At this point the Indian President Narendra Modi was finally forced to react: he proclaimed the event a “shame on India.” However, his condemnation came late and was deeply hypocritical – why?
The Manipur local government is more or less openly on the side of Meitei, while the federal government is officially neutral but silently no less on the side of Meitei. The reasons for this partiality are not only ethnic (an expression of the BJP Hindu nationalism) but also economic: the forests inhabited by Kuki are rich with minerals, and the government wants to drive the Kuki out to exploit the area more efficiently. The pressure on Kuki is thus, as expected, justified as a strategy of “progress” and “modernization” resisted by the tribal Kuki.
This brings us to “pure hands”: while the federal state pretends to act as a neutral agent just safeguarding law and order, its hands are far from pure since what it promotes as “law and order” clearly privileges the strong side in the conflict, providing it with the aura of legality. There is nothing new in such a procedure since it characterizes the entire history of “human rights”: again and again, this notion was shown to privilege the rights of a particular sex, race, religion, or social status. But what is going on in Manipur is that even the façade of a neutral state power crumbles: those in power openly support those who are (according to its own laws) illegal aggressors.
Is something similar not happening in Israel? As long as the traditional secular Zionist settler-colonial ideology predominated, the state (not so) discreetly privileged its Jewish citizens over Palestinians; however, it put great efforts to sustain the appearance of a neutral rule of law. From time to time, it condemned Zionist extremists for their crimes against Palestinians, limited the illegal new settlements on the West Bank, etc. The main agency playing this role was the Supreme Court. No wonder the Netanyahu government that took over in 2022 pushed through a judicial reform which deprives the Supreme Court of its autonomy. The large protests against judicial reform are the last cry of the secular Zionism; however, insofar as the protesters are not ready to endorse solidarity with Palestinians, their protest will remain limited to saving the appearances.
With the new Netanyahu government, the anti-Palestinian violence (the pogrom in Huwara, the attacks on the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, etc.) is no longer even formally condemned by the state. The fate of Itamar Ben-Gvir is the clearest indicator of this shift. Before entering politics, Ben-Gvir was known to have in his living room a portrait of Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred twenty-nine Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others in Hebron, in what became known as the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. He entered politics by joining the youth movement of the Kach and Kahane Chai party, which was designated as a terrorist organization and outlawed by the Israeli government itself. When he came of age for conscription into the Israel Defense Forces at 18, he was barred from service due to his extreme-right political background. And such a person condemned by Israel itself as a racist and terrorist is now the Minister for National Security who should safeguard the rule of law…
The State of Israel, which likes to present itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, now de facto morphed into a “halachic theocratic state (the equivalent to Shari’a law).” This shift is not just a secondary degeneration of the original vision, since it indicates a fatal flaw in the original vision itself. (A further twist in this story is that most of today’s messianic Zionists are not even really religious: they remain secularists brutally and cynically using religion as an instrument in the struggle for power.) In Lacanian terms, obscene violence is the surplus-enjoyment which we gain as a reward for our subordination to an ideological edifice, for the sacrifices and renunciations this edifice demands from us. In today’s Israel (as in Manipur) this surplus-enjoyment no longer dwells in the obscene underground, it is openly assumed:
“the surplus-enjoyment (killing Palestinians, burning their homes, evicting them from their homes, confiscating their lands, building settlements, destroying their olive trees, Judaizing Al-Aqsa, etc.) becomes explicitly articulated. While these forms of surplus enjoyment were previously viewed as an exception in official Zionist discourse, they are now considered as the norm.”
By designating the Israeli Jews as somehow “degenerate,” did we not regressed here the worst kind of anti-Semitism? Not at all: the Jews who support the ongoing trend effectively are degenerate in exactly the same sense as we all are. By acting as they do on the West Bank, they lose any superior status and become just one among the fundamentalist nation-states. Another name for this degeneracy is ideology: a symbolic edifice sustained by obscene surplus-enjoyment. But why use this provocative term? A reference to the use of the term “degeneracy” in quantum mechanics may be of some help: in quantum mechanics, “degeneracy” refers to the fact that “two or more stationary states of the same quantum-mechanical system may have the same energy even though their wave functions are not the same. In this case the common energy level of the stationary states is degenerate.”
Now, “imagine you’re shown two identical objects and then asked to close your eyes. When you open your eyes, you see the same two objects in the same position. How can you determine if they have been swapped back and forth? Intuition and the laws of quantum mechanics agree: If the objects are truly identical, there is no way to tell. But for a special type of anyons (particles that occur in two-dimensional space having characteristics of both fermions and bosons), quantum mechanics allows for something quite different. Anyons are indistinguishable from one another, but some (non-Abelian) anyons have a special property that causes observable differences in the shared quantum state under exchange, making it possible to tell when they have been exchanged, despite being fully indistinguishable from one another.” (“Abelian” refers to Niels Abel, a Norwegian mathematician from the early 19th century.)
It is easy to see how the non-Abelian anyons open a new path for quantum computation: when we swap particles around one another like strings are swapped around one another to create braids, the virtual braid that forms the quantum background of two particles can contain much more information than just two particles which are indistinguishable in their actual presence. But what matters to us here is the fact that the obscene underground of ideology is “degenerated” in a similar way: procedures that are in themselves indistinguishable (ethnic violence, torture, rapes, denial of the human dignity of the “enemy,” etc.) are accompanied by a braid of different symbolic narratives. The task of the analysis is thus to recognize the same “energy” – libido, libidinal investment – in Muslim fundamentalism, Zionism, Hinduism, Christian fundamentalism, while obvious differences in their narratives should not blind us for this sameness.
In our daily use of language, this obscene level manifests itself in what Lacan called lalangue (“language”), language in all its non-intended ambiguities and wordplays. It may appear that lalangue opens up the space in which we can resist the hegemonic discourse of power. In today’s China, the Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ is an internet meme based on a pun: it is a play on the Mandarin words cào nǐ mā, literally “fuck your mother.” Caonima is an exemplary case of the resistance discourse of Chinese internet users, a mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression, inspiring poetry, photos and videos, artwork, lines of clothing, and more. As such, it is part of a broader Chinese internet culture of spoofing, mockery, punning, and parody known as e’gao, which includes video mash-ups and other types of bricolage.
From our own culture, suffice it to mention the Häagen-Dazs brand of ice-creams – how did this name emerge? Reuben Mattus, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US and founded the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream company in 1959, engaged
“in a quest for a brand name that he claimed was Danish-sounding; however, the company’s pronunciation of the name ignores the letters ‘ä’ and ‘z’ and letters like ‘ä’ or digraphs like ‘zs’ do not exist in Danish. According to Mattus, it was a tribute to Denmark‘s exemplary treatment of its Jews during the Second World War, and included an outline map of Denmark on early labels. Mattus felt that Denmark was also known for its dairy products and had a positive image in the United States. His daughter Doris Hurley reported that her father sat at the kitchen table for hours saying nonsensical words until he came up with a combination he liked.”
Is “Häagen-Dazs” not lalangue at its purest? The name condenses a reference to alleged historical facts (Denmark’s treatment of the Jews, Denmark as a country known for its dairy products), imagined associations which are false at the level of facts (letters like ‘ä’ or digraphs like ‘zs’ do not exist in Danish although they “sound” Danish… for us, not for the Danes themselves, of course), up to the enjoyment in pure vocal nonsense. Such phenomena are far from being limited to ordinary language: many philosophical or scientific terms are formed in a similar way, chosen because of their pleasantly-obscene sound or their improper associations. Just think about quantum mechanics: “degeneracy” as a quantum concept, anyons, quarks (which also designated a healthy soft cheese), up to the Big Bang itself…
Such an infection of scientific concepts with the “degenerate” obscenities of lalangue in no way relativizes science into a historical phenomenon: true universal science easily survives its transposition from one to another ordinary language, which affects its discourse with different kind of obscenities. What this case clearly demonstrates is that lalangue should not be reduced to some kind of subversive poetic playfulness which liberates the speakers from the confines of the hegemonic ideology. Lalangue also (and maybe even predominantly) serves as an instrument of violent humiliation and oppression. A typical act of racists is to designate its enemies with an apparently “neutral” term whose obscene echoes deliver a clear racist message – and, when attention is drawn to it, the perpetrator claims that his hands are pure since he used the term in its neutral sense… A true act of liberation resides in our ability to extract a pure universal concept from its obscene contaminations. Try to formulate a racist/sexist notion in its pure logical structure, and its absurdity immediately becomes clear.
Even when a country fights for its survival and is engaged in heroic self-defense, the Cause of freedom is as a rule contaminated by some kind of obscene racist and sexist background which spoils the purity of its struggle. Those of us who stand firmly behind Ukraine are often worried about the fatigue of the West: as the war now drags into its second year, will not the countries that support Ukraine gradually get fed up with the permanent emergency state and the material sacrifices demanded of them? However, much more understandable is the war fatigue of the Ukrainians themselves: how long will they be able to go on fighting? It is already close to a miracle that they persisted for a year and a half, with no quick ending in sight. What Ukrainians can and should do is clear: the main medicine against war fatigue is justice in Ukraine: no privileges for the oligarchs. Is there anything more demoralizing thatn to see ordinary Ukrainians fight while many of the rich emigrated and organized for their sons to be exempted from military service?
A good sign pointing in this direction was that, on July 25, 2023, Zelensky
“has warned government officials and lawmakers that ‘personal enrichment’ and ‘betrayal’ will not be tolerated, after the arrest of a military recruitment chief on embezzlement charges and an MP accused of collaborating with Russia. His comments came after the arrest of Yevhen Borysov, head of the military recruitment office in Odesa, by Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and Prosecutor General’s Office. The National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption said he had illegally acquired more than $5mn through elaborate business schemes.”
It was discovered that, after the beginning of the war, Borysov discreetly bought a series of luxury properties in France and Spain… However, while the need for the fight against corruption is obvious, another point is no less important. To avoid collapse in the ongoing war, a truly united front against the common enemy is needed. Lately, though, signs are multiplying of a very worrying phenomenon. Many Leftists and non-nationalist liberals in Ukraine are ready to fight against Russia – they volunteered and are now on the frontline. (One of them who likes my work sent me the photo of his machine gun resting on two Ukrainian translations of my work, which he reads in the pause between battles – needless to say this photo made me quite proud.) However, since they resist aggressive conservative nationalism with its crazy extremist measures (just recall the prohibition to perform publicly the works of all Russian composers), they are as a rule sidelined by the authorities and often even suspected of Russian sympathies, as if Putin, the hero of the European and US Right, somehow stands for Socialism…
Suffice it to mention the great Ukrainian documentary film-maker Sergei Loznitsa, the internationally-acclaimed author of films like Maidan and Donbass. Loznitsa now lives in Lithuania and cannot return to Ukraine: he learned that, since he is not yet 60 years old (the limit age for conscription), his passport will be confiscated if he returns home. Other internationally-known artists can travel abroad freely, so we are dealing here with a clear case of revenge punishment by conservative cultural bureaucracy. I know this disgusting strategy from my own past: in Slovenia also, Nationalist Rightists always castigated secular Leftist opponents of the Communist regime as suspicious masked agents of the old Communists. In the seventies, I was never allowed to teach and was for years unemployed, while I am now regularly attacked as a “man of the old regime”…
In Ukraine, many women also joined the armed forces and fight on the front – some of them are well-known excellent snipers. Unfortunately, many of them now “express anger at stigma and treatment by male colleagues and say complaints are being ignored”: they have to fight on two fronts, against the Russian enemy and against harassment from their own masculine colleagues. One should generalize this situation: Ukraine itself is fighting on two fronts: against Russian aggression and for what Ukraine will be after the war. If (hopefully) Ukraine survives, will it be a nationalist fundamentalist country like Poland and Hungary with the Russian minority treated like Kukis in Manipur? Things are being decided NOW: only a wide popular front in which there is a place for everyone who opposes the Russian aggression can save Ukraine.