November 26, 2011

Commentary on the “Philosophical Thinking” of Gilad Atzmon

This article is not about Atzmon’s antisemitism, which has been discussed elsewhere [1]. However, Atzmon recently deemed David Landy, who writes here at JSF, alien to “philosophical thinking,” and “unable to grasp… metaphysical depth.”[2] As Atzmon knows, we Jews are tribal. No sooner did I read it than an effervescence of “clannish solidarity” percolated through my veins like echoes of far away drums. I therefore set myself the task of discovering the essence of Atzmon’s fabled “philosophical thinking,” and perused his recent offering, The Wandering Who, blunderingly published by Zero Books.[3] Yet this is no traditional book review. Space and time constraints limit me to commenting a single chapter. I chose chapter nine, which mostly levels unproblematic accusations against Israel. As the commentary is longer than the chapter reviewed, I hope that by the end of it the reader understands why a serious review of the full book is not likely. Unless Zero Books decide to publish an annotated edition.

Atzmon in his own words

What Zionists think of themselves is not very interesting; far more intriguing is the duality referred to above, the chasm between who they think they are and what they actually are, between self-image and public image, consciousness and unconsciousness. Unconsciousness, says Lacan, is the ‘discourse of the other’, which is very much the male fear of impotence. Rather than the anxiety induced by the fear of being caught malfunctioning, it is the fear of being known as dysfunctional. The real terror here is the unbearable threat that the fiasco may become public knowledge.

At the time of the 2006 Lebanon war, the Israelis’ ‘discourse of the other’ encompassed CNN, Sky TV, BBC and the West in general. As the war proceeded, it began to appear as though resentment was mounting amongst those who were no longer willing to accept Israeli brutality. Indeed, this gulf between the confident Israeli self-image and the total contempt of the other is exactly where the neurosis of Yehoshua, Oz, Grossman and the majority of Israelis came into play.

Two and half years after its military flop in Lebanon, Israel found itself once again in the midst of a second disastrous war that it had launched.This was Operation Cast Lead (2008), a total war against the people of Gaza and their democratically-elected leadership, Hamas. Along the campaign,Israel attempted to implement the lesson of the 2006 war. I think, probably optimistically, that by then, somebody at the state hasbara bureau must have read Lacan. The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror.Consequently the IDF barred all foreign media from entering Gaza, in order to guarantee a propaganda success. It wasn’t just about barring Goyim from entering the battle zone, but about preventing Israelis and Zionist Jews around the world from seeing themselves through the gaze of the Goyim. It was a crude attempt to divert the discourse so that Jewish unconsciousness was kept intact.
Atzmon follows with analyzing a detail from a Coen Brothers film, alleging that the key character, a Jewish American physics professor by the name of Larry, sheds light on the same issue.
In the dream, Larry is confronted with his guilt through his Goy neighbour. Rather than the fear of being unethical, it is the fear of being caught out as unethical that torments Larry. It is the ‘discourse of the other’ (the gun-toting neighbour) that introduces Larry unconsciously to a sense of guilt. I link this back to the case of Israel: it is not the idea of being unethical that torments Israelis and their supporters, but the idea of being ‘caught out’ as such.
Atzmon concludes:
The Coens’ Jewish tribal cinematic reality is the Jewish unconscious, of which Jews are far from being proud. Like Al-Jazeera and Press TV in Gaza, the Coens reveal Jewish ghetto malaise to an audience of millions. But they also tackle the notion of Jewish unconsciousness by the means of mirroring.

The Argument

Let’s outline the argument. The chapter introduces three pieces in evidence:
  1. the gap between the self-image of Israelis and what was seen on TV during the 2006 Labanon invasion,
  2. the gap between the self-image of Israelis and what was seen on TV during operation Cast Lead,
  3. the gap between the self-image of Larry as a good man, a fictional American Jew, and the truth.
In each case, the gap produces a strong reaction:
  1. the alleged neurosis of Israeli authors (undocumented, we see nowhere evidence or definition of the neurosis),
  2. the barring of foreign journalists from covering operation Cast Lead in Gaza,
  3. Larry being tormented by his neighbor’s contempt.
The evidence reveals a pattern, a gap between self image and public image, which produces a psychological symptom which fits, according to Atzmon, Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory. Applying Lacan’s theory to the evidence therefore helps identify the “Jewish Ghetto Malaise” and the “‘Jewish ghetto’ mindset”, which explains the evidence and therefore Israel’s behavior.

What is wrong with this argument? Pretty much everything, as I will enumerate.

A Chamber Pot Called ‘Lacan’

Lacan does not use the terms ‘unconsciousness’ and ‘consciousness’ Atzmon attributes him. He uses ‘the unconscious’ and ‘the subject.’ Since the unconscious is Freud’s (and Lacan’s) central theoretical concept, mangling it is the equivalent of referring to Einstein’s “theory of relatives,” or the centrality of “classic struggle” in Marxism. It is a sophomoric term paper blooper of the kind that teaching assistants love to share.[4] Atzmon claims he studied philosophy in graduate school. Perhaps he fell prey to one of those internet scams.

Nor did Lacan say that unconsciousness is “the discourse of the other.” He said that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other.” Capitalization is important, since ‘Other’ and ‘other’ are in fact opposing concepts for Lacan. The other (uncapitalized) is the object of desire and stands in an imaginary relation with the ego. This fundamentally narcissistic relation is that which Lacan identifies in the act of gazing at oneself in the mirror. The narcissistic relation interrupts the other relation, that between the subject and the Other. The Other (capitalized) is the symbolic order, language and the primary law of signification and desire, which constitutes the subject and is inaccessible to it. Atzmon attributes to Lacan almost the precise opposite of Lacan’s concept of the unconscious. ( la lettre volée )[5]

Therefore, the Lacanian telegram, “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other” refers to the unconscious as that which is both at the core of subjectivity and related to as alien and inaccessible to it, being the external and constitutive symbolic order of language. By no stretch of interpretation can it mean ‘what CNN and Press TV say about me that I don’t know’, which is how Atzmon uses the term ‘unconsciousness.’ Whereas the mirror provides Lacan with the paradigmatic model of imaginary, narcissistic identification, Atzmon uses the image in the mirror and on the TV screen as synonyms with the truth.

Put simply, Atzmon’s alleged theoretical apparatus does not exist.

Distinctions without a Difference

Rather than the anxiety induced by the fear of being caught malfunctioning, it is the fear of being known as dysfunctional.
The syntactic form ‘Rather than A, B’ presupposes a meaningful difference between A and B. Putting aside that I don’t know what “anxiety induced by fear” means, let alone how it differs from fear, what is the difference between the two legs of this construction? Although the muddy prose does not help, it could be that Atzmon distinguishes between the fear of failure in the act (performance anxiety) and the fear of stigma (being known). How does this distinction affect his argument?

If ‘it’ in the above quote refers back to “the male fear of impotence,” which is, we are told, “pretty much” the definition of unconsciousness (according to ‘Lacan’, though certainly not according to Lacan), then Atzmon argues that the male fear of impotence is not performance anxiety but rather the fear of stigma. That would be a questionable assertion, both because these two fears are intertwined—one fears failing at least partially because of the projected stigma—and because I suspect most men would rather not be impotent even when there is nobody around to know it.

Alternatively, ‘it’ could be a forward reference to “the real terror here”, which apparently refers to Israel’s symptom. In that case, the expression “rather than” distinguishes between “the male fear of impotence” and Israel’s symptom, thus arguing that Israel’s symptom is different from unconsciousness. This would invalidate the whole argument which is based on the application of that term to Israelis.

Differences without a Distinction

Since there is allegedly a single ghetto mindset, the three facts in evidence for this mindset should reveal the same psychological pattern. They don’t.
  1. The real terror here is the unbearable threat that the fiasco may become public knowledge.
  2. The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror
  3. Rather than the fear of being unethical, it is the fear of being caught out as unethical that torments Larry.
One can either be in denial about one’s crimes or blasé about them. One cannot be both. If one experiences guilt when caught, that is to the extent that the transgressed value has been internalized. If Israelis tried to avoid fully grasping what they have done (as Atzmon claims they did in Gaza), they could have only done so to the extent that they cared about the ethical implications of their deeds, not only about being caught (as Atzmon claims about Larry’s condition). If, on the other hand, they only wanted to avoid the repercussions of being exposed, they would have no reason to hide their behavior from themselves. The second and third patterns are not merely different psychological states, but mutually exclusive ones.

The first pattern is yet again different. Not revealing that one is an alcoholic is not the same as not revealing that one is a child abuser. Covering up a weakness so as to appear strong is not the same as covering up a crime so as to appear innocent.

In theory, different patterns can have an underlying unity, but they don’t have to, and they most likely don’t have one when they are mutually exclusive. Anyway, underlying unity needs to be shown. But there is no evidence that Atzmon is aware that his examples do not add up.

On The Interpretation of Films

Another example of Atzmon’s ‘Lacan’ at work is his cockamamie interpretation of Larry’s dream in the Coen brothers’ film, A Serious Man.
It is the ‘discourse of the other’ (the gun-toting neighbour) that introduces Larry unconsciously to a sense of guilt.
On the contrary. The dream's gun toting neighbor is not the Other. He is just a neighbor, namely, an other who provides a narcissistic reflection to the ego. One of the film’s main themes is the difference between experience (close to the Lacanian Imaginary), the realm of sense and visibility beneath which is glimpsed the Real, the realm of trauma and events, (the tornado, the disease, the car accident), and the Symbolic, the network of signification, religion, community, tradition, which governs the web of stories and interpretations that allows a person to make sense of the event, to survive, overcome, anchor oneself and relate to experience. We see that theme at the very beginning in the “Hassidic tale,” in which the husband (simple experience, sensible reality, the Imaginary) meets a helpful stranger (the Real) and invites him over to dinner, whereas the wife (tradition, knowledge, community, the Symbolic) possesses the communal knowledge that the man is dead, and therefore, deconstructing the image, interprets the event as a curse and the visitor as a dybuk. The same theme is introduced through the difference in quantum mechanics, between the stories “that help make sense of it”, such as the story of Schrödinger’s cat, and “how it really works”, the mystery that the incomprehensible mathematical formulae seek to represent.

The dream, as Freud notes, is a wish fulfillment fantasy, but the wish is not the manifest content. Larry’s desire, as the whole film reiterates constantly, is for the Other, for answers, for God, for meaning. But the truth of this desire is questioned. Does he really want answers, or does he want the questions to go away? He is asked directly, “do you really want to go back to how things were before?” His predicament in the film is precisely that he does not feel guilty of anything, and that means that he does not know what he wants. It is that predicament which makes the film a meditation on the biblical Book of Job. Larry’s wish therefore appears in the dream as the desire to be punished. By making himself a sinner he becomes the other of the Other, therefore eliciting punishment, which both release him from his predicament (fulfills his wish) and reintegrates him into the Symbolic by giving the misfortunes that befell him meaning. The Symbolic order, and the guilt that is essential to it, is the condition of the continuation of human life, which is why the only appropriate punishment is death. The neighbor who shoots him in the dream does not confront Larry with his real guilt, but is rather the imaginary representation of his own desire to be found guilty, to be guilty so he can continue to live, to be punished by God so that the disruptive question of God's will can go away. This is the paradox of the film, which is the theological paradox of Job, in that, in order to radically fulfill God’s will, one has to sacrifice the desire for order, for meaning, and for a relation with God, and vice versa.

Dream Work: Condensation and Displacement

Atzmon reaches conclusions about “Israelis and Zionist Jews.” However his evidence, to the extent that it is factual, does not have the same scope. The first and second evidence relate to the actions of Israeli authorities, primarily the IDF and the government. The third piece of evidence is a detail from a film, a dream, which relates to a fictional Jewish American character about whose political sympathies nothing is said. How do we get from these specific instances to the mindset that characterizes Zionist Jews and Israelis in general?

Regarding moving from governing authorities to Israelis, Atzmon offers nothing. It must be assumed that there is no such thing as a society, namely, a differentiated whole, divided by class, race, gender, status, etc, rife with both conflict and cooperation, with internal relations of domination, resistance and co-optation.

Otherwise, one could ask for example, are those who were prevented from “fully grasping” what happened in Gaza the same people as those who issued the order to bar journalists from Gaza? If not, what is the relation between them?

Rather than presenting a relation, Atzmon’s drift between the different categories works like a dream. Freud describes the unconscious thought process as the work of two mechanisms of substitution, condensation and displacement, which Lacan translates to metaphor and metonymy. The IDF / Government of Israel / Israel / Grossman / Israelis / Zionists / Jews (and we may continue with terms from elsewhere, Wall Street / Greenspan / the Bund / Marxists, etc. etc. practically ad infinitum) is such a signifying chain, in which every term can be substituted for the others through such mechanisms.

Regarding the move from the fictional Jewish character Larry to Israel, Atzmon is more explicit, although his explanation refers only to crossing the Atlantic and ignores the question of crossing the gulf between fiction and social reality.
…A Serious Man delivers a clear message regarding Israel and Zionism, for Israel is the Jewish state and, despite the Zionist promise to build a civilised nation, it functions as a Jewish ghetto, subject to all the symptoms of abnormality conveyed by the Coens.
What Larry’s case teaches us can be applied to Israel because Larry is Jewish and Israel, Atzmon says, is “the Jewish State” and functions as “a Jewish Ghetto.”

Thus, Atzmon practically declares that what ultimately connects Larry to Israel is a pure signifier, ‘Jewish,’ whose presence justifies substituting one to the other. Presumably, you know one Jewish thing you know them all. However, we need also examine the function of the signifier ‘ghetto’, as it may suggest a more substantial claim, thus giving ‘Jewish’ a positive content.

In what way does Israel function as a ghetto? It does function as such as a simile. There is one aspect of Israel that is like the Jewish ghetto/shtetl of yesteryear. Both are geographically bounded areas in which Jews live among Jews (in Israel, to the extent that Palestinians are segregated). Thus, the simile “Israel is like a ghetto” can be useful if one makes an illuminating argument on the basis of that aspect, but the simile does not exhaust its terms. In other key aspects Israel is not like a ghetto. It is a sovereign state possessing an army and nuclear arms, something the Jewish ghetto usually lacked. It is much larger, much more internally differentiated by class and race, much wealthier in the aggregate, etc. Why is the similar aspect determinant while the differences are not? Ultimately, Israel is like a ghetto in the same way that a gun is like a penis. The simile may illuminate why some men worship guns. But you cannot deduce from knowing that one needs a license to own a gun that owning a penis requires a license as well. What gives Atzmon’s false inference the appearance of solidity is, again, the sliding through the signifier ‘Jewish.’

Furthermore, in what way is the American Jew Larry connected to a “Jewish ghetto”? Larry lives among non Jews, thus lacking even that aspect of the ghetto that applies to Israel. While aspects of Larry’s life as depicted in the film are intensely Jewish, including some that might be illuminated through the metaphor (and not the reality) of the ghetto, there is no reason why either Larry’s ethical lapses or his sex fantasy would be so illuminated, rather than, for example, through male subjectivity, quantum mechanics, suburbia, academic life, theology, etc. Non Jewish men fantasizing about sex with the neighbor are not unheard of, and Larry’s decision to take the bribe is no more Jewish than his student's deciding to offer one is Korean. The connection between Larry’s lapses and the ghetto in which he doesn’t live is a pure semiotic slide through the signifier ‘Jewish’ and its permutations: Larry /Coen Brothers / Jewish / Jewish ghetto / Zionism / Jewish State. Atzmon glides from one term to the other, as if dreaming, or spinning free associations on the therapist’s couch, revealing little about anything other than his own unconscious.

Occam’s Razor and Gyges’s Ring

The Israelis would try to save themselves from fully grasping who they are and what they do by blocking out every possible mirror. Consequently the IDF barred all foreign media from entering Gaza,
Consider these four factoids:

  • The Alawite Syrian regime imposes a virtual media blackout on the popular uprising going on in Syria. [6]
  • The NYPD prevented journalists from covering the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park.[7]
  • The Chinese censor scrubs the internet for any mention of the dissidence.[8]
  • Israel barred all foreign media from entering Gaza.
One could offer four different theories, each positing a new entity, one for each fact: an Alawite mindset explaining Syria, a Han Chinese mindset explaining China, an NYPD mindset explaining the NYPD, and a Jewish mindset explaining Israel.

Or one could suggest a single theory that explains why governing authorities or elites seek to control official information despite knowing that the information will spread anyway. To take one example, in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James C. Scott offers a sophisticated analysis of interactions between dominated and dominating groups, introducing the concept of “the public transcript,” and arguing that the ideological performances of elites that seek to control the public transcript are primarily directed at themselves.[9]

What would Occam do?[10]

A similar appeal to Occam’s razor invalidates every other explanation Atzmon offers in this chapter. Do we need a special Jewish ghetto mindset to explain why the IDF sought to cover up its incompetence during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon? Do we need a special ghetto mindset to explain an illicit sexual fantasy of a fictional character? Do we need one to explain the fact that some ethical rules are sometimes obeyed by some people out of the fear of being caught?

As for the latter, hypothesizing that Atzmon’s graduate studies in philosophy consisted in corresponding with an on-line scammer hawking sham degrees might explain why he is unaware that the question ‘why do people behave justly?’ is somewhat old, as is the argument that they do so out of fear of punishment. In the second book of Plato’s Republic, for example, Glaucon argues:
…that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. [11]
The story proceeds with the myth of the ring of Gyges [12], who becomes corrupt after acquiring the power of making himself invisible. Incidentally, Gyges then
… seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.
Could it be that Glaucon reached his unflattering conclusions after observing the behavior of the many Jews who packed fifth century B.C. Athens? There weren’t any. Were the Athenians themselves so ‘Jewish’? Apart for the inherent offensiveness of the formula, that would be an odd argument given how much hay Atzmon makes from the imaginary opposition he posits between Universalist “Athens” and tribalist “Jerusalem.” (To close a circle with the film, in the following paragraph, accessed through the link above, Plato indeed conjures a Job.)

“Dear Consumer,”

Given that the text falls apart for being breathed upon, one has to ask how it works; what is the pleasure of the text? And, leaving that to another day, why would the author serve his readers the intellectual equivalent of canned dog food? A possible answer could be that he internalized Alan Greenspan’s market ethics. Atzmon cites Greenspan explaining why subprime mortgages were a good thing:
Innovation...has brought about a multitude of new products, such as subprime loans and niche credit programs…With these advances in technology, lenders have taken advantage of credit-scoring models and other techniques for efficiently extending credit to a broader spectrum of consumers.
The same is true of the field of books and articles. If there is a market for intellectual dog food, why ask why? There always will be entrepreneurs eager to satisfy the demand—for a modest return, be it mostly vanity.

Post-Scriptum: a Joke

A man visits a therapist and asks for help. The therapist proposes a Rorschach test. The therapist shows him the first inkblot and asks, what do you see? The man looks at it and replies, I see Jews. The therapist holds up the second image. What do you see? I see Jews. The therapist shows him the third image. What do you see? I see Jews. And so they go through the whole set of inkblots, and the man keep saying for every image—I see Jews. The test finished, the therapist folds the images back into a drawer and says: I think you might have an obsession with Jews. Why? Asks the man, upset. It is you who collects so many pictures of Jews!

NOTES (all links in the text are repeated here)


[5] Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire sur « la lettre volée » in Écrits I, Éditions du Seuil, 1966, pp. 66-67.


[12] Plato’s story is most likely one of the inspirations of Tolkein’s the Lord of the Rings.

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