What does one make of Marxist philosophy at Nuit Blanche? Is it a bizarre performance art piece? And furthermore, what can be made of Slavoj Zizek, Marxist philosopher, presenting in Rob Ford’s City Hall, on the theme ‘the end of the world’ no less? It was disorientating to just get let into City Hall, the last time I tried to get in here during the austerity budget vote there was several lines of police cops fighting and pepper spraying and pushing old men on the ground and stuff, and now they just let us walk right in.
The set up was a bit bizarre. The proles- ordinary attendees of nuit blanche, were sitting in the gallery seats and if they left the several-hours long event to go to the bathroom, faced the strong possibility of never being allowed back into council chambers. The presenters and moderators –as well as an increasing coterie of presumably grad-student type hangers on- sat in the cushy leather council seats with the rest of the council seats empty as the gallery became increasingly crowded. During the first lecture (a kind of opening band set-up) the bougie introducing dude was clearly uncomfortable and referenced ‘the unconventional nature of this setting’ in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t used to dealing with smelly proles. We weren’t even, as a crowd, really drinking as the whole questionable-bathroom thing made that a bit touchy, and the audience was far more ‘undergrad’ than OCAP, but we were apparently still a source of major discomfort. Also has anyone noticed that the shape of council chambers resembles ‘a great eye’ like sauron or something? Of maybe Star Trek- actually I think Toronto City hall did appear in an episode of Star Trek through a magic portal that one time- I digress
We all slept or fidgeted through the first lecture, a postmodern theory exercise involving unmanned drones ‘drone flesh’- ‘human cyborgs’ and ‘high tech’ videos, ‘slow suicide’. The whole thing was reminiscent of Fight Club or Adbusters from the majority of the audience’s dimly remembered adolescence: ‘the future as seen from the 70s’ according to the guy sitting behind me. I was left wondering yet again what this kind of academic research had to do with the current social movements and felt frozen in time back in 1999. It’s odd that we all came to see Zizek- a kind of cold war soviet communist relic- and yet that kind of explicit ideology held far more resonance than abstract postmodern theorizing about people being killed by drones in Afghanistan used for theoretical masturbation. O well! On to the next opening band!
Everyone perked up a bit at this one. It was a dense lecture interspersed with multimedia regarding oil, offshore oil, giant oil leaks in the gulf, tar sands etc- and it was really awesome. The presenter Brenda Longfellow, being both a prof and a filmmaker, was actually comfortable speaking to an art-going kind of public, and the little snippets of films were pretty impressive, and I’ve seen a lot of environmental films about extraction. The section where they go out on a fishing boat with a large ‘swamp people’ kind of shrimp/crab fisherman who shows how the crabs have all their eggs covered in oil and the death of the shrimp and his own livelihood and our food supplies- I’ve never seen this kind of thing done better. Can’t wait to see the whole film- the creepy abandoned offshore oil-rig video game looks good too but I really hope there are zombies.
The lecture hall fills up with people- some of them familiar faces from occupy but less than you’d think. This is more Occupy Wall Street than Occupy Toronto, cleaner, a bit younger, more likely to still be in school rather than have graduated/given up/flunked out, these are probably people who posted a lot on facebook about occupy but didn’t actually live in a park in the winter.
Zizek enters! A rock star only to us, we comment on how he looks shorter in reality. We are disappointed he is not waving his hands around enough- aha! there he goes, waving his hands! In the pre lecture non-bathroom break period he vaguely gesticulates in the direction of the cushy leather city council chairs and says something about how we should occupy them. I tweet “Zizek encourages us to occupy the city council chairs–don’t think this crowd is going to buy it’.
But I was to be surprised: the doucebag academic introduction guy gets up again. This time to inform us in a condescending manner, that although the room is packed and people have been sitting on the steps for about 2 hours and no attempt has been made to keep the aisles clear, that all the people sitting on the steps now have to go outside to the overflow room in the name of ‘fire safety’. And adds, reveling in what an asshole he was 'sorry but this is the death of democracy', likely a line he uses in his undergrad classes. But the proles have had enough. “We shall not be moved” yells one guy from the right hand side, and similar cries arise from the left and centre of the room. I look at my old friends from occupy and get the solidarity head nod. The people sitting in the stairs remain obstinate and do not stir. He insists again that he does not make the rules but that he must enforce them- we refuse. “Why the hell are you introducing Zizek, you don’t really seem to get it” I yell. He realizes that he is losing control of the crowd, you can seem think about calling security but there is only one security dude and this crowd is a bit more like a protest than it might first appear. And we are in city hall council chambers- this would be a great place to start this year’s occupation. I get a text “I’m down if you are”. (I am too pregnant to think about actually starting a ruckus though, have to stay out of trouble)
Zizek takes the stand. He says that we did the right thing by refusing to move from the stairs, but that we shouldn’t have even yelled anything, all we had to do was not move. I am impressed with this show of solidarity with the slight obstinacy of the crowd against annoying announcing guy. Zizek then use it as a segue to talk about how so-called ‘permissive’ societies work “you are allowed to do something on the conditions that you don’t do it” and “to pronounce publically the prohibition is itself prohibited”.
Anyway it was an awesome lecture, involving a lot of hand waving and interesting stuff, much of which is Zizek’s new book ‘less than nothing’, according to the section that my boyfriend skimmed through at Chapters (the book unfortunately does not cost less than nothing). One comment that he made which I really thought was telling: “If I would cast a vote as an ordinary guy I would not cast a vote for the radical left. Many leftists despise ordinary people” and then he muttered something about elite leftist professors. I can’t really paraphrase the lecture in a few quotes though, you should go look up some Zizek vides on youtube, it was basically just like that. The ability to like, actually talk to people is one that’s really underrated in academia for some reason, but its really important- and honestly I’m guessing a good 90% of the audience probably went to university, there’s really no excuse for not being able to communicate to them, and Zizek did it well without either condescending or being too academicy. And he was more communist than some the interviews I've seen him do on T.V. in which he slides into a surface liberalism. I felt like he was on our side- us the revolutionaries- and not that of normal academics or talking heads.
Where he really shone was question period. Someone asked a good question and got a really great answer, someone asked an overly academic question and got a good answer, someone humbly asked a naïve question and got a great answer. And then came the well dressed university-aged woman who told Zizek that permaculture was the answer, that thousands of communities around the world were practicing it, and asked had he ever heard of permaculture? (seriously? are you actually asking one of the leading communist figures if he’s heard of permaculture?) Zizek was like, um, ya, and questioned where these communities were… the girl said something about India. “India” he said, that’s interesting that you mention India, were you aware that the Naxalites are engaged in a revolutionary armed struggle in India and that this is the context in which permaculture is taking root? (cheers go up from the insane Marxist section of the crowd). Then the woman kept asking *more* questions when there were other people waiting in line, and kept getting good answers, and the thing ended.
The bizarreness of inviting one of the worlds leading Marxist thinkers to talk in city hall council chambers was noted though- Its actually interesting to think about how Nuit Blanche even happens in Rob Ford’s Toronto, and how Scotiabank ends up inviting an admitted communist to give a lecture. Its kind of a strange world we live in.
Maybe I would prefer one that’s a bit stranger… in which that event somehow becomes the golden opportunity for an occupation of City Hall and becomes an epic night that leads into a new ‘occupy’ for Toronto. If this event had occurred last year I think we might have planned something like that, we were always looking for opportunities’ back then- but that time has passed. In the meantime, maybe we can all learn some stuff and fuck up less the next time we try to run a social movement.
All right, your Toronto communist correspondent for Nuit Blanche is signing off. Remember: Don’t fall in love with yourselves.