Fear of the Future, Research Time, 20/02/2014

While I was publishing my extended riff on the institutionalization of creative writing, I was securing a couple of journalistic publications, working on a new theatre script, preparing some promotion for Under the Trees, Eaten, continuing some research for the Utopias project, and preparing to move apartments. Among a few other things. 

But my Utopias research discovered another interesting take on the nature of authority that could either be useful for the analysis, or a head-scratching anomaly for it. I still haven’t quite figured that out. Part of Zizek’s analysis of authoritarianism involved the example of Josef Fritzl. This was the case of an Austrian man who, in August 2008, was discovered to have spent the previous 24 years holding his now-middle-aged daughter captive in a cellar under his house. He had frequently raped her and bore seven children with her, though one died shortly after childbirth. Three of them were raised entirely in the cellar, and another three were raised by the elderly Josef and his wife, the latter children regarded as foundlings they had adopted.

The immensely creepy Josef Fritzl is led into court.
Zizek examines Fritzl’s behaviour toward his daughter and incestuous grand/children over those 24 years to reach a more disturbing conclusion than even the popular reporting did. I remember it being widely regarded at the time as a case of a twisted, deranged sex criminal. Something like the Ariel Castro case today.* Reports in the media at the time were also flabbergasted at how such a thing could go unnoticed for 24 years by neighbours, and even Fritzl’s wife. News reporters often ran analysis pieces discussing the excessive politeness of Austrians, their tendency (almost pathological in this case) to leave others to their own business without interference. Zizek interprets Fritzl in an even stranger and horrifying light. 

* Castro began kidnapping women in 2002, while Fritzl was only discovered in 2008, so there is no way we can consider Castro to be a Fritzl copycat. I wonder how many other such crimes over the years have gone undiscovered, and how many women who are simply not prioritized in missing persons investigations are actually in cellars and attics, unseen outside for years or decades.

Zizek describes Fritzl’s behaviour toward his grand/children in the cellar as mimicking a strange kind of normalcy: visiting them regularly, playing with the small ones, and watching television with them. No matter how much he may have been a horrifying spectre to his daughter, who was his imprisoned incestuous rape victim for over two decades, his day-to-day interaction with this hidden family followed all the trappings of an ordinary family man. Zizek refers to Fritzl’s own accounts of himself where he speaks of his love for his children and grand/children, his desire to protect them from the evils of the wider world. Paternal care is perverted to justify torture.

This is how Zizek finds the political content of Fritzl’s pathology: he is the paradigm case, on a micro scale, of the paternalistic authoritarian, for whom oppression and control is an expression of love. He interprets the same pattern in Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship of Romania: the tight social controls of his government over the behaviour of the people is for their own good, to protect them from the dangers of the wider world for which they lack the fortitude to handle. 

Fear of the future, of the development of a people, is the driving force of the temporal relationship and conception here. The most deluded parent is the one who has become incapable of understanding the experience, maturity, and adulthood of their children. They universalize the present moment of childhood and immaturity to all times, never understanding that such states of being change. 

This political pathology reveals the temporal dimension of a central element of democracy: that no matter how good a government may be, it must at some point leave power and change itself. The movement of time brings flux, and the imposition of stability over that flux will inevitably become repression. We must not ignore the reality of the yet-to-exist future for the sake of constructing an infinitely enduring present.

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