Only “Nothing” but an “Image” at the Center” (?) (Yair Lapid & Israeli Politics)


[OMA-Convention Center, Ras Al Khaimah]

According to Tom Segev, as quoted by Roger Cohen in the New York Times, voters who chose Yair Lapid in the recent Israeli elections “decided to vote for nothing, a TV image, a kind of anti-Orthodox Likud lite.” You hear this kind of condescending sentiment a lot on the left-left, which I’m not buying, just like I didn’t believe that Americans were so stupid that they were going to listen to Sheldon Adelson and vote for Mitt Romney, because, well, Americans are stupid and don’t understand anything except what rightwing corporate controlled media tells them. About Israeli politics, I’m not going to pretend to “know” anything “definite.” I won’t even claim to “like” Yair Lapid and what he imagines he represents, and I would doubt very much that there is a long-term future to his party. But I’m puzzled by the claim made by intellectuals to whom I am otherwise close and whose judgment I genuinely respect about “the center,” and about the claim that a large group of people decided to vote for “nothing” but an “image.” Both sets of claims, about the center and about an image, reflect what I take to be fundamental  misunderstandings about aesthetics and new media politics.

Segev’s quote appears in a recent NYT piece by Roger Cohen. Unlike others, though, Cohen actually interviews two struggling middle class voters, a married couple named Yoraan and Anda, struggling to make it into the middle class, who actually voted for Lapid. “The reason we chose him is we don’t like extremists,” Yoraan told me. “People here think all extremists are in the Arab world, but there are plenty in every religion, including here.” Anda said that two hours before voting she was undecided, but concluded that Lapid might do something because he understood “how much better off we might be” if entitlements for the ultra-Orthodox and investment in West Bank settlements were not “draining the country.”

I like this kind of old media, journalistic snapshot for what it tells the reader about what might have motivated a group of voters.  The self-critical thoughts articulated by these two voters seem to me to reflect at the very, very least a little more and maybe even a lot more thannothing.” For some reason I don’t believe that populations are fundamentally rational or irrational, and that people, on the whole as an aggregate, are more or less reasonable, except when they are not, and usually then, there’s a reason for that too. “Because if people are really that stupid…” In the end, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum, to  think otherwise and to give up on the idea of “the center” is mandarin and anti-democratic.

Intellectuals often do not know what to do with “floating signifiers” or with images, especially visual ones, in which they see only nothing. We want to be able to presume to know something definite, and to be ahead of the curve. For my part, I think there is a power to images, and what struck me first about the election in Israel was the simple fact that centrists did as well as they did, and did so without any real leadership or ideas, and without any real external momentum to motivate a base, and that, in fact, they seemed to do so on the basis of an image. I have no idea what will become of Yair Lapid, his party, and the people whom he represents. No empty cipher is just an empty cipher. All I can say for now is that I think I know enough about images and vagueness to know that an image about nothing always signifies something, either a lot or a little, either something or next-to-nothing, which in itself being next to nothing can’t be identical to nothing.

Among my academic friends, I see behind this kind of argument about “the center” the explicit or implicit presence of a lot of anti-democratic, anti-liberal political theory that gets bandied about today. That would be Badiou, Schmitt, Zizek and other tyrants of “the real.” I think it’s anti-democratic, this disrespect for an electorate, this idea that the center cannot hold, and has to give way, is going to give way, or has already given way, necessarily, to some kind of a decision towards one extreme or another in the “state of emergency.” That is why the focus on “normal” in Cohen’s opinion piece makes sense to me. To me, it doesn’t matter that this “normal” is simulacral, because I’m not sure what isn’t simulacral, and because there’s nothing more powerful than a good simulation, that this has always been so and is now especially more so in the age of new media.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Only “Nothing” but an “Image” at the Center” (?) (Yair Lapid & Israeli Politics)

  1. nitzan says:

    As a historian, I just want to point out that the meaning of “center” changes greatly from one environment to another. In political and socio-economic matters, the center in Israel (ignore for a moment radical views, like myself, that didn’t consider that much of a center as well), two decades ago, was where the “far left” is today. Hence, when people vote for “non-extremism,” they vote for an a-political agenda that refuses to see where and how things move– if I understand Segev’s argument correctly. This sounds to me like a pretty liberal understanding of democracy, and not at all the Zizek-ian or Schmitt-ian approach you’re criticizing. The latter would argue it doesn’t really matter what people vote, as long as they participate in the democratic game.

    • zjb says:

      nitzan, as usual, i can’t disagree with you, especially when you disagree with me, in this case, about history, shifting centers, and Segev’s liberalism. my schmitt remark was probably intended less in relation to the Segev comment and more to do with a lot of the anti-liberalism i find in academic crit-theory circles. again, though, my only complaint with your remarks here have to d with the line, “Hence when people vote…” My hesitation is that I really don’t know what “people” are doing when they do anything, much less vote.

  2. evanstonjew says:

    I’m not certain , but my guess is Lapid is closer to Netanyahu on the occupation than to Labor-Meretz-Livni, and also basically approves of the NetanyahuFisher free market ideologies.That is why he said he wants to join a Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition. At the same time he is going to spin both of these issues, maybe begin negotiations, do something to satify last year’s demonstrations. Hopefully coming from him it will have a more authentic feel than from Netanyahu who at this point has little credibility left. His main goal is to destroy the charedim. He can’t draft them if they refuse to serve, and he can’t put 60,000 in jail, but he can decimate the system of subsidies worth over $20,000 per family. What is remarkable is how many Modern Orthodox Jews buy into his rhetoric…he has a charismatic charm. In particular see the video linked by R. Maryles (1/28/13) and the subsequent discussions. We are on the verge of a civil war in the heart of Orthodoxy…Bennet-Lapid vs Shas-UTJ

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