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The Pornography of Democracy

Huw Lemmey28 January 2013

On January 26, Alain Badiou gave the closing lecture of the France-Culture forum, of which the Nouvel Observateur is a partner. Below appears an extract.

This text by Alain Badiou, which the Nouvel Observateur published as a pre-release, is a summary of the 'concluding lecture' which the philosopher gave this Saturday, 26 January, at the Sorbonne, at the end of the 'L'Année vue par... la philo' ['The year as seen by... philosophy'] forum, a day of debates organised by France-Culture  in partnership with the Nouvel Observateur.

Dedicated to analysing the year's events in the light of philosophy, the day took the form of five round-tables on themes as varied as industry, marriage and political deception, with notable participants including Daniel Cohen, Cynthia Fleury, Jacques-Alain Miller, Alain Renaut, Emmanuel Todd, and many more.

The Pornography of Democracy

A magnificent play by Jean Genet, 'Le Balcon' ['The Balcony'] contrasts the reign of images and the real of revolt.  We start in a brothel, a restricted space completely devoted to fantasies. Genet sees perfectly that what proves the hidden ferocity of contemporary power is the proliferation of the obscenity of images.

Outside, meanwhile, the working-class uprising carries on, just as it does today, outside the brothel, the chaos, that is the West, among the workers of the South African mines, the thousands of working-class revolts in China, or, indeed, at the outset of the Arab Spring. But so, too, in the hostels back home, where workers from Africa cram themselves in.

The deep question that 'The Balcony' poses the uprising, with its unpredictable outcomes, is thus the following: can political emancipation break from these images? The difficulty is that naked power, which hides behind the subtle plasticity and seductive obscenity of the images of the world of democracy and commodities, does not itself have any image, but rather is a naked reality, the state, which far from searching to deliver us from images, instead guarantees their power.

The brothel of images

The character in Genet's play who shows on stage the imageless power behind the image is, naturally, the chief of police. He is the emblem of naked power, because he is the 'left-behind' of images. No-one desires the chief of police – unlike the great sportsman, the TV presenter, the professional do-gooder, the democratic politician at the summits of state power, the top model or the showbiz billionaire, those who themselves profit from the brothel of images.

The central question, for those who wish to break from the power of power, is to free themselves from the chains of images binding them – and, to that end, to know who is the police-chief of their most intimate convictions. What is the subjective drive [ressort] behind our consenting to the world, such as it is? The idea of revolution having left the scene, our world is just the renewal – behind pornographic, consensual images – of commodity-democracy.

My optimism is that a forceful, organised and popular thinking that faced up to this renewal could interrupt this retrograde cycle, which has brought us back to a state of affairs – the untrammelled domination of liberal capitalism – close to that of the 1840s. The active core for destroying our internal police-chief – namely, our consenting to the imagery of the brothel, the chaos, that is the West – is not the critique of capitalism. Those who content themselves with a critique of the economy invariably propose some sort of regulated, acceptable capitalism – non-pornographic, more environmentally friendly, and always more democratic. But nothing can come of such chimeras.

The poetic undressing of the present

The only dangerous and radical critique is a political critique – in action – of democracy. As long as we are unable to make a creative critique of democracy on a grand scale, we will stagnate in the pecuniary brothel of images. We will be the servants of the couple represented in Genet's play by the madame of the brothel and the chief of police: the couple formed by consumable images and naked power.

But what kind of deimaging images do we need, we who are trying to hold open the door and escape Plato's Cave, the democratic reign of images without thought? How can we find the strength to escape from contemporary imagery, and become the communists of a new world? As one of the rebels says in 'The Balcony': "How can we get closer to Freedom, the People, Virtue, and how can we love them, if we idealise them? If we make them untouchable? You've got to leave them in their living reality.  Let there be poems and images, but they mustn't give pleasure, they've got to sting".

So let's make these poems and images, ones which do not satisfy any of our enslaved desires. Let's prepare the poetic undressing of the present.

Translated from French by David Broder. Visit Nouvel Observateur to read the article in French.

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