Žižek makes a link between the end of opera and the beginning of psychology. The voice of authentic opera had to evolve into an atonal Schoenbergian cacophony in order to capture the hysterical voice of our contemporary condition.[i]
But where does this hysteria come from?
We think that its roots are not in the birth of psychology, but that it appeared much earlier. That in fact it can be seen in the birth of the modern novel, in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In order to talk about our hysteria therefore, we need to talk about our Quixotic condition, which summed up comes to: you must even though you cannot. Or: you must do the impossible.
Did our modern human condition evolve out of a striving for that? And, if the tragic 20th century was driven by a Quixotic force, what will the motor of the 21st century be?
Hysteria is bad, and the contemporary world’s quest for achieving the impossible was a psychological motor behind so much of the disastrous aspects of the 20th century, which was undoubtedly a very tragic hundred years. Nevertheless, that does not have to mean that the future has to become an apocalyptic development of that same hysteria – as many believe it is. What if the impossible actually does become possible? What if Don Quixote’s insanity suddenly becomes realistic?
Technological developments have put us on a very real threshold from where the impossible now looks feasible. If this is true, then the 21st century should be a transcending of hysteria, allowing our Quixotic side to lose its madness and be seen for what it always could have been – inspiration. Such an optimism suggests that the future will be driven by a realization that the impossible is really quite possible, and from this – we must do the impossible because it is not impossible at all.
And yet, although we have arrived at a technological threshold in which our Quixotic dreams of human progress are made possibilities, there is still a pragmatic, skeptical Sancho Panza element holding us back. If we think about the current energy debate and the need for the development of affordable, green technologies, we can see a clear example of how a new, contemporary dialectic has arisen between Quixote and Sancho. A Quixote who is inspired and knows that his dreams can become realities, whilst the skeptical Sancho Panza is forever arguing that cheap renewables are a fantasy and that the only practical solutions is to keep going with what we’ve got. The same dialectic seeps into philosophy and politics. Whilst Quixotic dreamers try to see beyond the borders of nations, races and religions, for the abolishing of guns, and the end of war, poverty and hunger, the new sarcastic Sancho keeps reminding them that they both tried that once and it failed, with disastrous consequences; and that it would be madness to ever try it again.
In theory, with scientific advances, Quixotic positivism should eventually diminish the dictatorship of the pragmatic and propel achievements once more into the sphere of the truly great. But, why is this not already the case?
Of course Sancho Panza has a great benefactor now. He no longer works for Don Quixote, he lost in faith in the Knight of the Sad Countenance and abandoned him centuries ago, embracing skepticism instead. Now, Sancho Panza represents the beliefs of the System itself. Sancho’s current benefactors are the members of a System which transforms possibility into an impossibility that we should strive for in order to become enslaved not by the realization of the possibility itself, but by the idea of it. While the object of desire is unrealized it can still be exploited, and what capitalism is striving for is exploitation. Turn dreams into dollars – that is the function behind our System, and it well knows that once the dream becomes a reality, the exploitive power is lost.
Pragmatism is, therefore, a term used to defend exploitation and convert the possible into the impossible dream. It is a barrier between us and possible achievements, and subsequently authentic progress. It is a wall between civilization and humanity. Only by pulling this barrier down will we ever liberate possibility, rendering the impossible as something possible.
Of course, this also means that while pragmatism exists as a constantly skeptical force against inspiration, the hysterical, Quixotic paradox will be perpetuated. And … the human condition will remain hysterical.
In order to transcend hysteria, we need to bring the System down. In order to do that, we must ask what is happening and compare it with what could be happening. Bob Dylan’s Mr Jones’ dilemma that something is happening but he doesn’t know what it is, is not enough. He, and all the other skeptical Sancho Panzas, must be shown the real possibilities ahead of us, and, by so doing, brought to understand and believe in all the variegated complexities of the possibilities of the impossible.
[i] Žižek, TARRYING IN THE NEGATIVE, Chapter V