[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 than “nothing.” 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.