Waxing bin Laden

Jeremy Fernando

Perhaps one might be allowed to open with a potentially outrageous observation; that of the relation between the renewed interest in Brazilian waxing and the increase in fear of terrorism.  At first glance it would seem absolutely absurd to even speak of waxing and terrorism in the same breath: how an age-old religious practice that suddenly become popular again for aesthetic reasons, has any relation with one of the greatest fears of modern states seems practically to belong in the realm of science fiction.


However one must never dismiss a possibility just because it isn’t immediately obvious: as we have leant from Donald Rumsfeld—perhaps yet another strange source—the relationship between ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’ is many-fold.  At the now infamous US Department of Defense news briefing on 12 February, 2002, then Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld quipped,


but the truth is, there are things we know, and we know we know them — the known knowns. There are things we know that we don’t know — the known unknowns. And there are unknown unknowns; the things we do not yet know that we do not know.”[1]


Perhaps unbeknownst to him, Rumsfeld had stumbled upon a key problem of knowing and knowledge, that of the relationship between the object of inquiry, and awareness of the existence of that object.  In the first scenario—the “known knowns”—the subject is both aware of the object and has a cognitive understanding of it.  In the case of the “known unknowns,” the subject is aware of her/ his lack of cognitive understanding of the object.  It is more interesting in the case of the “unknown unknowns”: here the subject is unaware of the fact that (s)he lacks a cognitive understanding; this would be the case of an absolute lack of knowledge.  The problem with Rumsfeld is that he didn’t go far enough: he missed out the fourth variation, that of the ‘unknown knowns’.  In this case, the subject is unaware of the fact that (s)he has a cognitive understanding of something.  Hence one is never able to determine whether (s)he knows or does not know of something; this would be the case of the indeterminability of knowledge.  However, just because (s)he is unaware of something does not mean that it has no effects on her: even though (s)he might be completely blind to it, doesn’t mean that it cannot affect her.



Mayhaps here, we can consider this possibility: terror resides in the unknown.  Or more precisely we fear what we know we do not know.  Hence it is not so much an absolute unknown that is the problem: if we do not know that we do know not, it is completely outside our scope of cognition.  It is when we have an inkling that there is something that lies outside our understanding that we are faced with this fear.   In other words, terror grips up precisely because of the ‘known unknown’—we know that there is something out there, but we also know that we have no way of knowing when it will happen, or what will happen.


In order to deal with this, we have to create an explanation for whatever happens: whether this explanation is real or simulated, correct or not, is irrelevant.  As long as we believe it to be so, it fills this lack of meaning that causes the anxiety and fear.  This is most clearly seen by the need to prescribe a perpetrator to an act of ‘terrorism’ the moment it happens.  We saw this happen in the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995: moments after it occurred, many ‘witnesses’ were reported to having seen ‘men of Arab descent’ leaving the scene.  Even after the perpetrators were discovered to be White Americans—Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols—many refuse to believe that they were not part of a larger organized ‘grand plan’.  Within minutes of the two planes flying into the World Trade Centre in New York on the morning of September 11, there was widespread speculation of who was involved.  In fact the moment different extremist groups started to call-in to claim responsibility for the act, there was a strange calming down: at least one knew onto who and where to direct one’s energy.  One could posit that the confusion and terror at this time was transposed to anger; whether it was accurate or not is practically irrelevant.  It is this same need for a ‘master plan’ that we see at any exhibition regarding terrorism: somewhere in the room, usually near the centre, one will find an organizational chart.[2]  For it is far more comforting to believe that someone is in charge, rather than the fact that an event could be an occurrence without a necessary, logical explanation.  After all, the madman is locked away in the asylum in order to preserve the notion that the rest of society is rational, within and under the confines of logic, and reason.


And it is for this very reason that after every act of terrorism, we hear a barrage of jokes or conspiracy theories: both function in exactly the same manner, which is to provide an explanation for what has happened.  It does not matter how absurd the explanation is as long as there is one.  The probability of one man being entirely responsible for everything is not high, nor even really plausible.  Here though, one can consider the register that the operating logic for this explanation is exactly the same as in all monotheistic religions; after all, one requires a great amount of faith to believe that reason dictates all the events that occur.  In this way, the event is no longer left as an accident, an unknown, and is brought back under logic, reason, back into our comfort zone.


This was clearly demonstrated in the state of Singapore on 28 February 2008.  There should have been a state of pandemonium: one of the most dangerous men in South-East Asia—alleged high-ranking deputy in Jemaah Islamiah—Mas Selamat Kasturi had escaped from the Whitley Detention Centre.  However, what we encountered was ambivalence and even mirth: there were numerous jokes surrounding the escape ranging from his name (Mas Selamat Kan-diri)[3] to how Prison Break should just be renamed Toilet Break.  What these jokes reveal—regardless of their actual content—is a desperate attempt to find a reason for his escape.  They function in exactly the same way as conspiracy theories; bringing us a perverse comfort of knowing that there is someone in charge—some reason behind—all things that happen.


What we truly fear is not so much what lies beneath (how can we ever know this), but the veil that lies in between us and the event itself: it is when we can see the veil that we truly worry about what is in the abyss.  For the veil not only conceals something—which is not so much the problem for if something is completely out of sight, there is also the chance that it will eventually be out of mind—but more pertinently, is a constant reminder of this very concealment.


It is the tale of Ra that never lets us forget that the power of secrets does not necessarily lie in its content.  When Ra was poisoned by Isis, she offered the antidote in exchange for the secret of his name; for anyone that held this secret would also share in the immense power of Ra.  He agreed and the secret was passed to her, the secret of his real name: Amen-Ra.  However, when we consider the fact that the secret to his name is merely an affirmation of his name—I am Ra—this suggests that the content of the secret was always already known; after all, it was common—if not universal—knowledge that his name is Ra.  Hence the secret to his name was in fact an ‘unknown known’—everyone knew the secret; they just did not realize that this was the secret.[4]


This is precisely why hoaxes are punished severely.  It is not so much that they are a waste of resources (those same resources will be spent chasing a ‘real’ lead that turned out to be fruitless), but that they display all too clearly our inability at distinguishing a real event from a hoax.  In fact, a hoax is a perfect instance of terror: it has the same effects (fear) without any possibility of ending.  If there was an actual bomb, it could either be defused or it would explode: in either case, the event will end.  With a bomb hoax, the fear is always already there; all we are waiting for—endlessly—is the bomb to explode.  This is, as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud constantly remind us, “a blow [that is] not struck on the adversary but it is hoped that the blow will be borne by the third party, the witness, public opinion.”[5]  The aim has always been to concretize the link between the signifier and a single signified.  A perfect example of this is how the signifier ‘September 11th’ now has only one signified—that of the events of the morning of 11 September 2001 in New York City.  The fact that the date does not need a year to it suggests that every other year in history has been subsumed by this one; there is no more space for negotiation.  What has been taken hostage is this very space itself.  As Lyotard and Thébaud continue,


whereas in a two-sided battle, my opponent thinks that what I think and do is unjust, and I think that what he does and thinks is unjust.  Well, his freedom is complete and so is mine.  With a hostage, I am applying … not even “pressure.”  It is much more than that.  It is the social bond taken as a fact of nature.[6]


What has been taken away is choice: one no longer has any choice but to constitute ‘September 11th’ as a ‘terror attack on the United States’; your only other option is to refuse this interpretation.  This is hardly a space for negotiation, for thought: all you can say is ‘yes’ or ‘no’.


This is also precisely why there is no space for irony when it comes to the ‘war on terror’: we see this most clearly in all airports, where signs read—in one way or another—that ‘jokes about hijacking, or terrorism, are not tolerated’.  In fact a joke about terror is treated as if you have made a real threat.  This inability to divorce jokes from a real threat was most painfully witnessed on 22 July, 2005, when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot seven times in the back of the head by the police in London on the premise that he was potentially a suicide bomber.[7]  The reason given was that he was displaying signs consistent with a suicide bomber: he was ‘acting suspiciously’ (whatever that means), he ran when the police called out to him, etc.  What this event displayed was not only the complete inability to distinguish the signs of a suicide bomber from the actual suicide bomber, but that there is absolutely no difference between them.  In fact, by displaying the signs of a suicide bomber whilst not actually being one, de Menezes exposed the perverse core of the Law: that it is a sign system and nothing more; and it is this that he was executed for.[8]

However if we admit that hoaxes are a perfect state of terror, we would also have to admit that there is no way of actually combating it: the ‘war on terror’ is always already lost: it is irrelevant how many ‘terrorists’ are captured or killed as the fear is already in place.  In fact if all ‘terrorists’ are killed—which is the fantasy of state security—we are in real trouble; at this point, the spectre of terrorism will forever haunt us.  Here we witness the wisdom of an old Cantonese saying which roughly translates to, “it is better to have a known enemy than to be oblivious and see everyone as a friend”; the Anglo equivalent would probably be the proverb, “keep one’s friends close; keep one’s enemies even closer.”  Hence what has to be done is the construction of a reason for the hoax itself: this will allow it to be put back into its place: if there is a cause for the hoax, then there must also be a solution for it.  In other word, in order to appease our own fears, we must always be able to see what is going on.


This is not to say that there are no consequences for this simulated clarity.  It is Jean Baudrillard that continues to warn us of the dangers of an absolute transparency, where all things “lose their specificity and partake of a process of confusion and contagion—a viral loss of determinacy …”[9]  In this way, “every individual category is subject to contamination, substitution is possible between any sphere and any other: there is a total confusion of types.”[10]


Each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all the other categories.  When everything is political, nothing is political any more, the world itself is meaningless.  When everything is sexual, nothing is sexual any more, and sex loses its determinants.  When everything is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly anymore, and art itself disappears.  This paradoxical state of affairs, which is simultaneously the complete actualization of an idea, the perfect realization of the whole tendency of modernity, and the negation of that idea and that tendency, their annihilation by virtue of their very success …[11]


And not only is meaninglessness the problem.  By extension, everything can be flattened, and hence, everything becomes calculable, and is no longer singular; there is no longer an irreducible difference in humans, in us: we are all completely and utterly exchangeable.


In order for it to be made clear—transparent— it must be brought under an over-arching logic: an Idea.  Under that Idea, everything else merely takes its place under the network—every term (and person) has meaning only insofar as it relates to the larger Idea.  We have all seen the horrors of this logic play out most clearly in Khmer Rouge Cambodia: under the over-arching idea of “Year Zero,” one of the most brutal instances of genocide was unleashed.  Of course it takes more than a concept to kill people—an idea itself did not result in the death of millions.  However, it was this Idea that formed the framework, the structure, such that everything that lies outside the boundaries, the premise, is excluded, forbidden, banished.  The significance of the Idea is even clearer in the fact that in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, one did not even need to be guilty of anything to be executed: as long as one was labeled an enemy, one was automatically excluded, imprisoned, tortured and murdered.  This suggests that as long as one could not be reduced to a sub-set of the Idea, as long as one could not remain exchangeable within the confines of the Idea, one was beyond the pale.  Instead of George W Bush, it might as well have been Pol Pot who uttered the threat, “You are either with us, or against us.”[12]


The irony of course lies in the fact that by making Osama bin Laden the master-signifier for all terrorism, he is now not only meaningless, but also can be—in the words of the perfect seductress—‘anything you want me to be’.  For it is not like we will allow him to remain meaningless: our fear of the unknown will drive us to fill the signifier with a meaning, any meaning.  And in this way, the spectre of bin Laden will continue to haunt us.  By attempting to ‘wax’ bin Laden, by removing the veil from him, all we have done is to show ourselves not so much that there is nothing to see, but more pertinently that there is nothing that we can see.  In effect, we have made bin Laden a ‘known unknown’—all that we now know, is that we have absolutely no notion of what is going on.


It is at this point that we reach an aporetic situation: clearly if an event remains absolutely unknown, it brings us great discomfort, fear, terror even; conversely attempting to know it too much is also problematic.  Here one finds the echo of Samuel Beckett, we are left in a situation where one has to both go on, but cannot at the same time.  The question that emerges from this is one that is best captured by a colloquial saying, “so how much then is enough?”


In order to briefly examine this, it might be helpful to take a small detour, into the realm of freedom and happiness and its relation with choice.  For ostensibly, the greater the amount of choice the subject has, the freer, and happier (s)he should be.  If that were true, then one should be satisfied with an event without explanation, as one can then provide one’s own explanation; however the fact that the unknown event causes such discomfort—and conversely the search for the ‘person in charge’ seems to bring us comfort—would suggest that the reverse is true.  A detour into three major political systems might shed some light on this.


In a Fascist state, the subject is denied all freedom; all power lies in the hand of the one absolute leader—in this sense, (s)he plays the role of the (Absolute) Other, in which everything depends.  The subject is merely a part of the whole body (in the form of the state): this is the corporatization of the state and its subjects.  Hence, all action of the subject is a result of the Leader: this is why Adolf Eichmann’s defense in Jerusalem, when he claimed that he was innocent as he was merely following the orders of the Fuhrer is perversely correct.  Ironically, this absolute enslavement also ensures the absolute freedom of the subject; for there is nothing that the subject can responsible for.  (S)he is merely a cog in the entire body, and as such, the subject is not responsible for anything, even her/ him self.  So even if the subject is punished by the law for something in a Fascist state, it is not that (s)he is guilty for doing—or not doing—something, for one can only be guilty if one is responsible for it, but the fact that the Leader deems her/ him so.  The fact that the private and the public spheres are collapsed ensures the true freedom of the self; one is accountable only to the self and not to any external force.


In a Totalitarian state—the Soviet Union under Stalin for instance—the other takes the form of the Party.  In this manner, once again there is no freedom for the subject as everything is determined by the Party; all responsibility comes under, and is of, the Party.  Hence the subject can always blame the Party for anything, even bad weather.  Once again, a perverse form of freedom for the subject can be found in this situation.


In a democracy, the subject has to assume complete responsibility for both her/ his actions and also that of the state.  The freedom of the subject is closely related to the choice(s) that is presented to the subject; and in fact, the point of ultimate freedom, expression of one’s will and choice, comes at the moment of election.  At each election, the subject has three options: elect a particular candidate or party, spoil the vote, or refuse to vote.  But whichever option the subject chooses, (s)he has already agreed to accept the outcome of the election.  This, for instance, makes all claims to Bush’s illegal election moot the moment the results were officially announced; one can challenge them up to the point which they are announced, but no longer after. More crucially, the subject has to take responsibility for the outcome.  In effect, whether or not you elected that particular person/ party, you are responsible for her/ his/ their actions.  By extension, this means that whatever legislation is passed by those elected to office—no matter how brutal or disagreeable they may be—is effectively passed by the subject(s) on themselves.


This ironic—perverse even—lack of freedom in democracy is due to the attempt of the subject at bridging the gap between her/ him self and the other; by attempting to know the other too well.  By having a direct hand in choosing one’s own leaders, one is in effect having a stake in the leadership, whilst being governed by that same leadership.  Hence there is no longer a gap, a space, to complain about that same leadership; after all, you were the one who chose it.  For a moment we turn to Slavoj Žižek and his meditation on happiness, and perhaps it might shed a light on the importance of a gap between the self and the other, between knowing and the unknown.

When exactly can people be said to be happy?  In a country like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, in a way, people were, in a way, actually happy: three fundamental conditions of happiness were fulfilled.  Their material needs were basically satisfied—not too satisfied, since the excess of consumption can in itself generate unhappiness.  It is good to experience a brief shortage of some goods on the market from time to time (no coffee for a couple of days, then no beef, then no TV sets): these brief periods of shortage functioned as exceptions that reminded people that they should be glad that these goods were generally available—if everything is available all the time, people take this availability as an evident fact of life, and no longer appreciate their luck.  So life went on in a regular and predictable way, without any great efforts or shocks; one was allowed to withdraw into one’s private niche.  A second extremely important feature: there was the other (the Party) to blame for everything that went wrong, so that one did no feel really responsible—if there was a temporary shortage of some goods, even if stormy weather caused great damage, it was “their” fault.  And last, but not least, there was an other Place (the consumerist West) about which one was allowed to dream; and one could even visit it sometimes—this place was at just the right distance: not too far away, not too close,  This fragile balance was disturbed—by what?  By desire precisely.  Desire was the force that compelled the people to move on—and end up in a system in which the great majority are definitely less happy.[13]


It is the desire to close this gap that leads to the nightmare situation: for the logic of freedom only works until the point in which one gets to choose.  The freedom of choice is perfect only when it is not a real choice; when the guidelines have already been laid out and the consequences are not real.  The nightmare begins when one begins to believe that one can really choose: in this manner, the outcome is never known (by definition) and it is at this point that the Real springs forth and stares into the face of the subject.  The desire for false choices is shown by the success of advertising: choose between the hundreds of different shaving creams; it matters not at all, for every one of them is the same (but your desire to choose has been satisfied; more importantly, the gap still remains).  In that case, the question that arises is why the Real does not over-take us at each election (since that is a choice)?  This is simply because elections (and politics) have long ago entered the realm of simulated choice.  This was best captured when the slogan “Join the Revolution” appeared on television screens in Singapore in mid-2005.  This was probably the first ‘revolutionary-like’ comment ever seen on TV in the last 20 years, until it was revealed that it was an advertisement for instant noodles (Koka).  But perhaps this an apt reflection of politics; that it is nothing more than a sign system of exchange.  One might as well have been voting for Obama or McCain, Ahmadinejad or Mousavi, Nissin or Maggi.[14]


To claim that everything is a sign system—or an illusion—does not mean that they affect us any less.  As anyone who has gone to the theatre, or cinema, knows, even though we know that it is fiction does not mean that we do not laugh, cry, feel anger, outrage.  So whether we are conscious of our ‘suspension of disbelief’ or not, is irrelevant; in either case, the illusory nature of the phenomenon has effects on us, all the same.


Perhaps here we should respond to the echo of Beckett and treat this illusion with irony; in this regard, it is not that we should disregard the illusionary nature of terror, but more pertinently, we should enter the illusion itself, and treat the illusion absolutely seriously.  After all, any dispositif is hinged on the resistance of the subject—why should terror be any different?  If the subject does not mind being disciplined—put under the logic of the dispositif—then what power has it over the subject any longer?  Hoaxes maintain their power due to the subject maintaining a distance from the hoax itself: it is this inability to fully believe in the hoax that allows it to continue haunting the subject.  In the case of a bomb hoax, the fact that terror continues to haunt the subjects long after the area is declared safe only shows that the subjects both believe, and do not believe, the threat at the same time.  If they completely believed in it, the fact that the authorities do not find a bomb should defuse all the fears; conversely if they completely do not believe in it, then it would not have any effect in the first place.  It is this partial belief—this inability to decide whether to believe or not—that results in the constant terror.  To compound issues, this partial belief also means that the fact that no bomb is found is tantamount to there always already being a bomb somewhere ready to go off; or more radically still, that the bomb has already gone off, and we are merely waiting for its effects.


Perhaps here, it might again be helpful to once again turn to the modern day thinker of the revolution, Slavoj Žižek: after all, no one truly believes the possibility of revolutions anymore, and this is shown by the constant nostalgia shown for the events of May 1968.  However, Žižek continually argues, in one form or another, that


in a proper revolutionary breakthrough, the utopian future is neither simply fully realized, present, nor simply evoked as a distant promise that justifies present violence. It is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short circuit between the present and the future, we are—as if by Grace—for a brief time allowed to act as if the utopian future were (not yet fully here, but) already at hand, just there to be grabbed. Revolution is not experienced as a present hardship we have to endure for the happiness and freedom of the future generations but as the present hardship over which this future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow-in it, we already are free while fighting for freedom, we already are happy while fighting for happiness, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is not a Merleau-Pontyan wager, an act suspended in the futur anterieur, to be legitimized or delegitimized by the long term outcome of the present acts; it is as it were its own ontological proof, an immediate index of its own truth.[15]


It is this “as if” that remains crucial to us: we must act ‘as if’ we are able to do so.  In the case of terror, we must take on the Beckettian wager in its full profundity; we must treat plunge into the illusion ‘as if’ we are able to do so.


Here one can take a lesson from the state of Singapore.  Overtly section 377A of the constitution criminalizes sodomy; in effect—if not in principle—homosexuality is a criminal act.  However Singapore is also one of the gay capitals of Asia.  There is practically a gay district in the middle of town, just outside of the Central Business District; this is no underground scene, and everybody knows where all the gay bars, and clubs, are.  At first it would seem paradoxical for that to be so.  However, when one takes into account the running logic of the state—ultra-capitalism—this begins to make complete sense.  Since surplus value is the aim of capitalism, surely it does not matter if the result of a relationship is surplus in the form of another human life (reproduction), or in the form of revenue (the pink dollar).  Once value is abstracted, the irreducible differences between the two can be flattened.  This is not to say that anyone actually believes they are the same thing; however, clearly one can act as if they are.


In the after-math of September 11, there was widespread panic around the world regarding one’s response to the possibility of a terrorist attack.  Even though most believed there was in reality no way to stop a committed suicide bomber—what defense does one have if the bomber was already willing to give up her/ his life—states had to do something in order to seem like they were doing something.  Most states over-reacted—the United States of America would be a prime example.  The irony of course is that by putting their citizens—and anyone that was unfortunate enough to have to pass through their immigration system—under such checks, and scrutiny, they might as well have been terrorizing everyone; by attempting to make everything, and everyone, transparent, they have already taken away the “space of negotiation,” and all secrets.  The introduction of the ‘alert levels’ only served to exacerbate the terror; this means that the spectre of the threat is ubiquitous and unending, for even ‘alert level green’ only means that the ‘level red’ was merely waiting to happen.


On the other hand, Singapore had an enlightened response to the ‘terror threat’.  In a walk-way between one of the subway stations with the highest tourist traffic—Orchard MRT—and a popular shopping mall—Wisma Atria—a solitary security guard was posted there.  And (s)he did absolutely nothing.  The common reading, and criticism, from the public was that this was merely a show: after all what good could he do.  And this was how most people completely missed the point.  A security guard does absolutely no good when it comes to a suicide attack; neither does any elaborate security system (otherwise Presidential assassinations could never happen).  What this solitary guard does is to guard the very idea of security itself: to guard as if it was possible to guard.  And more than just that, whilst (s)he was guarding the idea, everyone’s life went on as normal—in this way, there effects of the alleged terror threats were dissipated.


This is the acknowledgement of the very nature of terror itself.  What the security guard does is to ensure that the “space of negotiation” is guarded.  When (s)he is seen, the public is free to make what they will of her/ him: even if one constitutes that (s)he is perceived to be nothing more than an object, one is still free to interpret the object in whatever manner one desires.  Here one might invoke the spectre of the gatekeeper from Franz Kafka’s fable “Before the Law” in The Trial.  It is only the gatekeeper that prevents the man from the country being absolutely bound to the Law; the Law that he cannot see, cannot hear, and cannot know about.  The fact is that the man from the country is free to go anytime he chooses; it is the gatekeeper that is bound to that spot, bound to keeping the door open for the man, the same man who is also free to step through the door.  The role of the gatekeeper is to inform the man of the consequences, nothing more.  However without the gatekeeper, the man would be completely enslaved to the Law (which has somehow drawn him to the door-way), as it would become his Absolute Other, ruling him as a pure idea, without any possibility for him to even approach.  Hence the gatekeeper is the medium through which the man has an opportunity to even begin conceiving of this Law.  In exactly the same way, the security guard that sits at the entrance to the walk-way is the medium between the idea of the threat of terror and the people; by allowing us to think of her/ his role, we are saved from being plunged completely into terror itself, we are kept from the absolute unknown.


This is the same lesson that can be learned from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street series.  Freddie Krueger’s reign of terror over Elm Street is premised on the fact that he can enter one’s dreams, kill you in there, and you would wake up dead.  Hence the most dangerous thing that one could do on Elm Street was to mention his name; once he entered your consciousness, there was always a danger of him entering your dreamscape.  In other words, Freddie Krueger adopted the space of the absolute other, the unmentionable; and of course the more one isn’t supposed to mention something, the more news of him spread like wild-fire.  After all, one cannot know not to know something.  Since Krueger only appeared in one’s dreams the popular option in Elm Street was to attempt to stay awake constantly; this of course proved impossible.  The solution to the problem was to take Freddie on his own terms; enter the dreamscape and kill him there.  In other words, the people at Elm Street finally gained freedom by re-appropriating the imaginary for themselves; regaining the space between dreams and reality.


This strategy is precisely the same as the one that some people are adopting in their resistance against state-tyranny on smokers.  By introducing pictures of various diseases that are allegedly brought about by smoking, states attempt to scare people into quitting.  However this is simply a futile gesture as everyone already knows that smoking is bad for one’s health.  The reaction of some of the more creative resisters is to attempt to collect a full-set of these pictures.  One can reclaim one’s imaginary space through a process of creative (mis)reading; by reading the stickers as objects in themselves—rather than as a signifier for a disease—they are turned into objects of desire.


This suggests that in order to reclaim our imaginary from terror, we have to learn to creatively mis-read all the signifiers.  What we need is a sense of disinterestedness; where the signifier should only be read singularly.  This is where we must take a lesson from Aristotle’s judge in the Nichomachean Ethics; judging singularly, making each judgement in a situation, such that each judgement is in exception to everything but itself.  And since each judgement is made in a particular situation, a situation that never repeats, each judgement is in effect in exception to everything, even itself.  Hence the judge is always already judging her/ him self as a judge in the moment of judging.  So in some moments, ‘alert level red’ should be taken with utmost seriousness (run for the bunkers), whilst in others, it should indicate what clothes to wear that day.  In this manner, we save for ourselves our space of negotiation with the signifier.


By seeing, but refusing to see too clearly, or more than that, by refusing to let any sign be shown too clearly to us.  In that manner, we preserve our imaginary, precisely by allowing the signs to keep some secrets from us.



Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School.  He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy, and media; and is the author of Reflections on (T)error, Reading Blindly, and a book, The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death.  Exploring different media has led him to film, and installation art, and his work has been exhibited in Vienna, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore.  He is the editor of the thematic magazine One Imperative, and is also a Research Fellow at the Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.



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[2] An instance of this would be exhibition titled The Changing Face of Terrorism at the National Library in Singapore (9 November to 17 December 2004), where an organization chart took centre-stage.  This was in spite of the fact that the exhibition also noted that modern day terrorism is organic, and organizations —Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah amongst them—are no longer run like according to the logics of traditional hierarchies.

[3] This is a play on words in the Malay language.  Mas Selamat Kan-diri literally translates to ‘Mas saves himself’, which sounds very similar to his actual name.  Another popular joke in Malay at the time was, ‘where can you find Mas Selamat’; the answer to it was “in the neighbouring state of Johor Bahru, as there is a sign at the causeway that reads ‘Selamat datang ke Johor’ (which translates to ‘welcome to Johor’ but could also mean ‘Selamat came to Johor’).

[4] The irony of the joke “Selamat dating ke Johor”  was not lost on everyone on the morning of 8 May 2009, when it was announced that Mas Selamat had indeed been apprehended in Johor; at that point the nature of secrets was momentarily revealed: it is not what one knows that is important, but that one must know that one knows.  And even though Mas Selamat has been recaptured by the Malaysian police, and he has laid out the route that he took to escape, the reason for it remains unknown; hence it remains a mystery to all.


[5] Jean-François Lyotard & Jean-Loup Thébaud. (1999). Just Gaming. pp.70.


[6] ibid. pp.70-71.


[7] News of this tragic event is widely available online.  It can be found amongst other places at



[8] The fact that one can only be found guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ shows that doubt is the spectre that haunts every judgement, that is part of every judgement.  This is due to the fact that each judgement is the singular application of a universal law: this means that each application is in exception to the universal.  Hence there is no reason the application of the law, and the idea of the law, have anything to do with each other.  However for the Law to maintain itself as a universal governing idea, the paradox where each application is potentially in exception to its universality has to be maintained as its secret.  Just because everyone knows it doesn’t mean it can be openly mentioned: it is this unsolvable paradox—this aporia— that hoaxes expose; it is this transgression that Jean Charles de Menezes had to pay for.


[9] Jean Baudrillard. (1999). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. pp.7.


[10] ibid. pp.8.


[11] ibid. pp.9-10.

[12] Bush’s exact words in his Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People (20 September, 2001) were: “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”



However, in some way, it is almost irrelevant these days whether “you are either with us, or against us” is a paraphrase, and not Bush’s exact words: we are in the realm of the sign; as long as it is attributed to you, you might as well be the one that said it—in fact, you are already the one who said it.

[13] Slavoj Ziek. (2003). The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity. pp.42.


Much of the thinking behind the paragraphs on Fascism, Totalitarianism and democracy were developed in a conversation with Slavoj Žižek at the European Graduate School, Saas Fee, August 2004.


[14] It was in a conversation with Serene Chua, on 27 September, 2005, in Singapore that the Koka advertisement was brought to my attention.


[15] This was in reference to the utopian ideal of the Leninist revolution and can be found in Slavoj Ziek.“A Plea for Leninist Intolerance” in Critical Inquiry. Winter 2000.


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