The above picture is now finished, complete with title; however an earlier version of it was made by me sometime in late 2001, soon after the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center. It was used on the cover of the first (and only?) issue of Autonomy & Solidarity (A&S) magazine published sometime in September or October 2001 by the Love & Rage collective based mostly in Sydney. Unfortunately there is no date on the magazine so it is hard to exactly date either it or the original picture. However the A&S mag advertises protests at the ‘upcoming’ CHOGM meeting in Brisbane for October 6, 2001. This meeting was in fact postponed until 2002, the Australian government citing the 911 attacks as the primary reason for the delay. So the magazine was almost certainly published before this postponement and after the attacks.
At the time I was formally a member of the Love & Rage collective, although I lived in Canberra. The following year myself and another comrade formed the Treason collective on the basis of what had been the Love & Rage Canberra group.
Here is a scan of the original cut-up, made from pictures taken from various National Geographic magazines: At the time I was not completely happy with the image. I had begun to get my head around an image editing program called Paint Shop Pro. And so I tried to smooth out the cut-up:
This was certainly a step forward for me insofar as I was able to manipulate images previously set by the old standard of scissors, paper and glue. However I hit upon grey-scaling the entire image and leaving the coca-cola ‘tombstone’ in its original red — just like the final version — all the better to emphasise the washed out, empty ‘reality’ of capitalism in which commodities take on a reality that was both illusory and imposed. However I did not proceed to make this change at the time, whether that be from incompetence or more likely sheer laziness. I did send on a version of it though to the editors of A&S, a complete grey-scaled black and white version of the manipulated cut-up. Unfortunately they printed it like this:
I wasn’t too happy with the way this image made its first public appearance, but I assured myself at the time that the project of A&S was more important than my wounded pride. Nonetheless I did learn never to pass on work without stipulating the way it was to be used.
And so the years intervened and I forgot about returning to the unfinished picture and then for some reason, perhaps with hints of dreaded nostalgia, I returned to it in 2013 to be done with it.
The original title is perhaps the most problematic part of this work. In 2001 I called it ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’ after the Slavoj Žižek article of the same name. The article was written and published in late 2001 and was later collected in Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates published by Verso Books in October 2002. I had read an earlier version of it on the aut-op-sy list, on which it circulated soon after the 911 attacks.
At the time I was more open to Žižek’s work. Indeed the earlier version of his essay was republished in the same issue of A&S in which my image appeared. I now reject Žižek’s concept of ‘the Real’, which he borrowed and adapted from renowned nonsense-monger Jacques Lacan. ‘The Real’ is in essence Lacan’s rebranding of Kant’s thing-in-itself. It is both the unreachable condition and ultimate alibi of a ‘symbolic order’ forever cut-off from it. What a load of bollocks. The first problem with ‘the Real’ is that it is the conceptualisation of something that is supposedly beyond conceptualisation. Fail (similar to Derida’s différance). Another problem with ‘the Real’ is that being purportedly beyond conceptualisation makes it impossible to test such a claim, i.e. whatever I say about ‘the Real’ can never be verified or falsified simply because it is ‘the Real.’ In essence ‘the Real’ serves no useful purpose, i.e. it is unnecessary for understanding either the so-called ‘symbolic order’ of humans, or even more so how such a ‘symbolic order’ arose on the basis of a ‘pre-symbolic’ or ‘proto-symbolic’ order. In particular it dovetails with those, mostly post-structuralists and postmoderns, who believe that ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ can be dismissed as bourgeois fictions. Thus ‘the Real’ is the formalisation of the idea that human representational practices — indeed all of human culture — is utterly distinct from the human considered as an animal with a ‘natural’ history. Though it is important to understand that our species is distinct insofar as we are a peculiar animal, Lacan, Žižek et al. tend to fall back on what one can only call a mystical cosmogony that bares comparison to Kant’s equally mysterious transcendental deduction.
What ‘the Real’ is useful for, however, is confusing the ‘natural’ animal origins of human practices and human social orders, not to mention the tendency of its boosters to misunderstand the historical culture of humans as something akin to an inescapable alienation. This is confusing because one of Žižek’s inspirations, Louis Althusser, held both to a theory of ‘the Real’ and rejected Marx’s theory of historical alienation.
Althusser believed that all human societies are ‘ideological’. What he meant by this is similar to what Žižek and Lacan argue about the distinction between ‘the Real’ and ‘the symbolic.’ In Althusser’s schema ‘ideology’ serves the same role as ‘the symbolic’; thus for Althusser there will always be ideology. Althusser’s conception of ‘ideology’ departs radically from Marx’s. For Marx bourgeois thought was ideological to the extent that it inverted the truth about social reality. An example of such is the way that the political economists of the 19th century simply assumed the ‘bourgeois individual’ upon which they erected their economic theories, rather than demonstrating the historical nature of such an assumption. Thus for Marx the bourgeois individual was an ideological conception because it inverted the truth about what was without doubt an actual object of enquiry, i.e. bourgeois individuals. Marx opposed to such ideological conceptions a practice of revolutionary critique which would ‘grasp the root of the matter.’ Thus ideologies could be dispelled, but not in thought alone, rather only through the practice of understanding and changing the conditions which sustained such ideologies.
The real origin of Althusser’s conception of ideology is to be found in Lenin and Gramsci; both of them returned to a pre-Marxian use of the term ideology, using it to denote different bodies of thought of which Marxism was but one. In place of Marx’s contention that revolutionary critique dispelled ideology, we have its ultimate transformation into Althusser’s conception of ideology as the perpetual condition of human social organisation. That’s quite a transformation; but if we consider the mental gymnastics which required Althusser and other faithful Stalinists to consider the USSR and Mao’s China as communist, let along trace a lineage between Marx, Lenin and Mao, then the utter transformation and reversal of Marx’s theory of ideology by him was small change.
For an excellent account of ideology faithful to Marx’s, and an explanation of the degeneration of Marx’s ideas into ‘Marxism’, check Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (and check here for a scan of the article complete with footnotes).
And so to return to the matter at hand: thus I renamed my work ‘Dead Real’, after the situationist idea of ‘dead time’. What you see is an ideal representation of the real desert of modern alienation — ‘Dead Real’ as it were. And of course such a reality has its fitting tombstone marked in red; the lifeblood of the world sucked dry and absorbed by the cavalcade of things and ‘their’ prices. Not to be confused with an unreachable real, just a collection of commodities masquerading as ‘the real thing’.
 It is worth noting that Althusser differentiated between ‘scientific knowledge’ and the ‘ideological’. In this schema the scientific was the province, in modern capitalist societies, of the Stalinist Communist parties. Needless to say this schema, science/ideology shares only the most cursory of similarities with Marx’s opposition of revolutionary critique/ideology. Certainly Marx did not conceive of the ideological as inescapable, as he also did not conceive of ‘scientific knowledge’ as the sole province of Leninist styled parties.