The Phantasmatics of Fascism


/1/ – The Realness of Fantasy

Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) is an interesting note on fascism as well as the subsequent relation between fiction and politics (discussed somewhat in my entry on Frank Miller’s 300.) On a very basic level Pan’s Labyrinth belongs to a broad series of works involving young girls getting lost in some way or another in fantastic worlds such as Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away, The Chronicles of Narnia (which incidentally del Toro was offered to direct) and so forth which usually involves a coming of age theme, in which fairly tales are worked through, returning to ‘reality’ in the end.

This is not the case in Pan’s Labyrinth, where, if anything, Ophelia ends up in the fantasy world, if it is in fact a separate place. Kenneth Turan, a reviewer for the New York Times, stated that Pan’s Labyrinth is ‘more real than reality.’ In an interview with NPR, del Toro makes a related comment in that he sees all reality as artifice (Lacanian imaginary anyone?)

Fascism gives an interesting twist to the ‘Father can’t you see that I am burning dream’ in that Zizek argues, following the dream, in a typical Zizekian reversal, ‘reality is for those who can’t sustain the dream.’ If the Truth always has the structure of a fiction, as Lacan says, then is fascism simply the embrace of the horrible kernel that is usually suppressed to give reality its consistency?

The fascist symptom does seem harder to discover than that of the Nazi’s. There is not a particular element to be excised, as in the case of the other totalitarianism, but instead a push for unity in a different direction. One might invoke the fascist need for futurity, whereas the Nazi dream was more strongly tied to the past, to a totality that has broken by a particular exterior element. The literary and artistic movement of futurism was a huge influence on Italian fascism and crystallized the fascist valorization of speed and violence.

/2/ – Automatic and insectoid desires

This fascination with speed and violence leads us towards the efficiency of insects. More often then not totalitarian regimes are portrayed in a way that is mechanical and passionless. The myriad forms the concept of a ‘hive mind’ takes in horror, science fiction and gothic texts directly or indirectly call on fascism in one way or another.

In terms of the insect, the bug embodies a sort of beautiful ugliness, this is a quality which del Toro himself tried to capture in the film and that he experienced such feelings playing in his grandmother’s garden, naming all the insects. This is embodied well in the faeries that disguise themselves as a kind of overgrown grasshopper.

There is a kind of strange coincidence of fascism and insectoid beings in the film Starship Troopers which had a ridiculously over the top satire of war that seemed lost to most of the audiences who watched it. Both the director Paul Verhoeven and the screenwriter Edward Neumeier point out in various commentaries that they wanted to simultaneously parody rampant militarism as well as the fairly new fad, at the time, of embedding journalists into combat. In the DVD commentary Verhoeven makes the comment that ‘war makes fascists of us all.’

There is a complicated knot invoked here between nationalism, war and hyper-organization. Del Toro has noted that the classic Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive, which also criticizes Franco’s fascism, was an influence on his work. The film portrays a family wrapped up in tending to their beehives as well as being lost in various fantasies, including the main character’s (also a small girl) fascination with Frankenstien.

There is a kind of implicit or explicit message in several fantastical stories involving children, the injunction to – grow up! or to take 1 Corinthians 13:11 at it’s simplest: “When I was a child, I used to spake as a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” (King James Version). The question becomes – does automatism require a entrapping fantasy or a lack of fantasy, of imagination?

/3/ – The Paranoic monkey wrench

What would be helpful here is to take a cursory look at Lacan’s discussion of paranoid knowledge in the third seminar. Lacan quips ‘The non-duped err’ meaning that those who think they cannot be duped are of course the ones being duped, it is also why when contemporary theorists and politicians state that we are now living in a post ideological age one should immediately recognize that such a statement is ideological par excellance. Non-psychotic paranoia, or what we could deem social paranoia, for Lacan, only differs from regular knowledge production in terms of degree. For Lacan paranoids simply take the arbitrariness of the symbolic order too far and project one’s self outwards subsequently becoming horrified at the degree which, as social subjects, we are always already trapped in the other’s gaze. This act of projection is that which draws us away from the initially alienating yet narcissistic moment of the self recognition, Narcissus at the pool. The act of projection allows us to expand the feeling of alienation to the social level, to realize that we are all alien to one another, and ourselves, and we are fighting over the same objects, not for their intrinsic qualities, but because others desire them.

So what does this have to do with fascism? The refusal at the ending of Pan’s Labrynth to divide the fact from the fiction reinscribes both the frailty as well as the necessity for fiction. The question then becomes – what are the ethics of following the fantasy?

Some light might be cast on this by looking at Fascism’s relation to Soviet communism. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek utilizes a well known joke to discuss the peculiar relation of subjectivity to the real. The joke involves a bureaucrat asking the Jewish man Rabinovitch why he wants to immigrate, to leave the USSR. Rabinovitch says he has two reasons. The first is that he fears that some radicals will overthrow the government and that he will be in danger. The bureaucrat interrupts him and says that that will never happen, and that the Soviet government will never fall. Rabinovitch then says that that is the second reason.

Zizek’s point following the joke is that negation of the negation does not simply reaffirm the first statement (the thesis) but that the resulting statement (synthesis) is the original negation looked at awry. To examine it in terms of the joke – the second reason (that communism will go on for ever) is the true reason Rabinovitch wishes to immigrate but that reason only truly emerges once the bureaucrat says it.

/4/ – This last century…

Badiou’s short and brilliant text The Century emphasizes the peculiarity of the last century. He states that the last century sees itself as both that of the ‘new man’ embodying a radical Dionysian spirit and terribly nihilistic. The great affirmationist push proves itself the engine of the second world war as well as the larger series of capitalist and communist struggles until the cracks of the USSR’s self destruction become visible in the early 1980s.

Now, to return to the film’s material, that of the Spanish Civil War, clearly this sort of spirit was necessary to ‘reinstall’ the revolution after it ‘technically ended’ with the inception of WWII and the Nazi threat. As del Toro himself notes in the aforementioned NPR interview, the allies turned away from the resistance during and after the main European assault. The defenders of the Spanish republic had to maintain a fantasy, no doubt marinated in nationalism, to keep alive the fight against Franco.

One could suggest that Badiou’s dyad of the century – the choice between the ‘new man’ and settling for the lesser evil is a kind of coincidence of opposites, that the terrible nihilism of settling can come about only because of the jump for the new man, the assumption that the world has been broken into. Badiou calls Nietzsche the prophet of the century and the embodiment of this concept in that while he articulated the plague of ressentiment he also pointed towards the territory of the ubermensch, and articulated the moment of the Great Noon, the ‘disjunctive synthesis’ (p. 31).

The problem of the disjunctive synthesis is echoed in the larger problem of the century in that the century is that of the art of representation, or as Badiou puts it, the century of Brecht. Brecht constantly questioned the relation between individual fate and ‘impersonal historical development’ or the irruption of the masses (p. 41).

The connection of facism and fantasy in del Toro’s film comes down to the complications of living the epic. If the ‘passion for the real’ was the driving force of the century then, as Badiou remarks, what is pivotal is understanding this passion in relation to the art of semblance, of the theater. The necessity for Ophelia’s story telling might be somewhat like Shahrazad’s, but there is the more asserted understanding that the old rules of the fairy tale can be broken and one can still recover.

Maybe that is what is truly disturbing about the pale man. Beyond the sickening strangeness of his organ displacement, seeing through our hands suggests a kind of lack of critical discussion of political fantasy. In can either be the failed projects of the past which risk too much or the muted politics of compromise and of hands across the aisle.

We fear we will fall into a kind of insectoid machination, unable to escape, so we ignore the particuliar dressings of our own hive and tweak the widgets.


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