Everything You Want to Know About Kierkegaard, Badiou, and Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Arcade Fire)

Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light; Alone in the darkness, darkness of white

Unfortunately, there is a profound truth to Jodi Dean’s argument about contemporary politics. She claimed that “democracy organizes enjoyment via a multiplicity of stagings, of making oneself visible in one’s lack.” Isn’t it the case, then, that contemporary democratic politics engages in a politics of being seen. Dean continued, “Contemporary protests in the United States, whether as marches, vigils, Facebook pages, or internet petitions aim at visibility, awareness, being seen. It’s as if instead of looking at our opponents and working out ways to defeat them, we get off on imagining them looking at us.” This is an example of what, long before Dean, Kierkegaard referred to as the main characteristic of the present, reflective, age. Kierkegaard wrote that, within the present age, we all act within the public – that is, we all act within view:

Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age, a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. […] a political virtuoso might […] write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home — having spent a very pleasant evening.

This is the point – everything today which is an action appears within public view. And it is the publicity and advertisement which matters before the action, and so, by all standards, it is not an action at all. One can state this another way: the image of rebellion is what matters – and not the rebellion itself. In fact, as long as the image of rebellion lives there is, within the present age, no need for authentic rebellion. Why? Because the image is something which provides a certain degree of satisfaction, or, if we like, the image is what provides a certain type of enjoyment for us under democratic capitalism. If we are trapped in an image, it is a dark image – an image which is illuminated, that is, which is there for us to see and view, but which is nonetheless dark inasmuch as it is devoid of anything authentic or real. There is lightness in the present age, but it is not an enlightenment – it is not an illumination, it is just empty light.

It is publicity, then, which largely defines the time in which we live. So here is the darkness of the time: every time that we think we’ve found a way out of the spectacle of the present age, we seem to be recuperated ever more. Today’s most rebellious models seem to operate purely within the world of empty light. Indeed, those models which bring us the most profound hope for the future – models of alternative higher education, models of alternative distribution, models of alternative economic exchange, etc – always seem to begin from the image. Will we ever see what is on the other side of the image?

I’d Lose My Heart, If I’d Turn Away From You

I want to ask readers to pause for a moment to think about the question I just asked: will we ever see what is on the other side of the image? This is an important question. If it is true that we live during a reflective age, and if it is true that we are constantly putting the image before the act – i.e., the cart before the horse – then how is it possible to act in such a way that our actions make it through to the other side? Put differently: is it possible to have an authentic rebellion? Perhaps we need to get our bearings from something obscure, something outside of the image. And yet, once again, we are met with the problem that there is nothing outside of the image. So, we can say that that which does not live within the image does not exist within the world. There are no authentic acts within the world because there is nothing that exists outside of the world of the image.

But Alain Badiou has taught us that this is precisely where we can locate our hope. An authentic rebellion occurs when a being which does not exist within the world makes itself exist within the world. In other words, by all accounts the world in which we live denies the existence of something which is outside of it. When existence is denied by the world then it is the task of that which does not exist to make itself exist. Thus, Badiou claims that “[a]n event, a political event, a revolution, can be defined by the transformation of ‘no existence’ into ‘real existence’ in a world.” This is what Arcade Fire explains, in their own way. There is something authentic about the affirmation of the existence of something within the world which was previously thought to not exist. In other words, if an element of an object inexists in a world, then it is only minimally identical to another element of the same object. What does this mean? It means that the world in which we find ourselves measures the relationship that occurs between elements of the world. If some element is not very similar to some other element then it inexists. A revolution occurs when some element within the world which once had a minimal value – which once was not entirely similar/identical to some other element in the world – attempts to obtain a maximal value.

All of this is to state: the revolutionary subject is the one who decides not to turn his back on the affirmation of this existence. Revolutionaries – don’t lose heart!

What if the Camera Really Do Take Your Soul?

We are absolutely terrified by the camera. And yet we seem to be ever more driven toward the products of the camera. We do not like being watched, but we enjoy being watched at the same time. How do we account for this which at first appears to be a paradox? The point is that we enjoy pretending that we do not know that we are being watched. If somebody points out that we are being watched we will act shocked! “Oh no!, How can they be watching me? How dare they!?” This is all a part of the game that we play with ourselves under democratic capitalism: watch me but please don’t tell me that you are watching me. Doesn’t this explain, in part, why it is that we only seem to get angry at Facebook (as a company) when they explicitly point out that they have the right sell our photographs, demographics, etc., to companies? Moreover, does this not explain why it is that we all hate facebook and yet we are all on facebook? This is the point: we want to be hit with the flashbulb eyes, we want to be watched, and yet we do not want to be told that we are being watched.

How do we overcome all of this? It seems to me that part of the solution is to paradoxically assert the spirit of the time: “go ahead, watch me!” Arcade Fire asserts this principle so as to affirm the inexistent dimension of the photograph: “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Isn’t this the most dangerous part of the photograph, the part which affirms itself as ‘nothing’? This was the victory of modern painting – the black background behind the brutal foreground. Slavoj Zizek describes this affirmation of the nothing of modern art as the “space for thinking.”

When Love is Gone, Where Does it Go?

All of this makes up a nice equation for thinking about revolutionary philosophy. We began with a question about the image and moved on to ask if an authentic act is even possible today. Is it possible to see something other than the image? We then asked if, within the inexistent darkness of the image we can begin to see a new light, a new love, a new heart. Finally, we ask a question about love and fidelity. If I ask you, as a revolutionary, not to lose heart, what I really mean is: did you turn away from the event which provoked you? Surely, there is a lot of pain involved when we remain on the path of the affirmation of the inexistent. It could even imply the loss of love. Many revolutionaries are forced to give up lasting relationships with their friends and families. The point is that we are forced to finally ask a question about love, about fidelity to the revolutionary event.

Traditionally, within Lacanian psychoanalysis, we conflate love with the transference. In other words, love is typically thought of as love for the image. It is a false type of love. Arcade Fire asks if it is possible that there is life after love-transference. In the clinical situation it is very often after much screaming and shouting, after much hatred – which is itself a form of love, that the analysand can finally ask the question: “when love is gone, where does it go?” This is the question we must now ask ourselves: is it possible to reinvent the concept of love? Is it possible that there are many versions of love, of which the love of the image is only one. Along the way, we must always be wary of the love of the image – we must always recognize that there are different modalities of love.

I Know Your Living in my Mind

There is a profound novelty in coming to understand the truth of one’s love. We should ask ourselves if we are really in love with the revolutionary situation, our sexual partners, our families, and so on, or if we are in love with the image of the revolutionary situation, and so on. Arcade Fire urges us to find the limit of the old modality of love, to awaken the desire for a new season of love. If we can finally come to grasp the love we have for the image then we can also finally prepare ourselves for the spring.


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