Certainly, the portrayal of famines as disasters promotes a depoliticized, technologizing approach. This stress on disaster reflects a fascination with what Zizek calls the sublime and, at the same time, a need to tame and domesticate an encounter with the Real. The distinction between nature (raw, uncontrollable, traumatic) and society (ordered, under control, calm) is a distinction between the Real and what we call social reality. This distinction is central to the process of constituting social reality and subjectivity. Hence media interest in stories where this contrast is featured would not be surprising: they deal with something central to what we call existence itself.
The experience of disaster as an encounter with the real is one that, like the gaze of the victim, forces us to confront the impossibility of social reality, the void at its heart. The Real is that which cannot be symbolized. The symbolic or social order is always incomplete or impossible. It can only be constituted by the exclusion of some (nonsymbolizable) kernel – the Real. The literature on trauma and post-traumatic stress emphasizes that not only those caught up in a disaster experience this shock of an encounter with the Real, but also those who witness it. Whole communities can be caught up in it; indeed, those who share a traumatic experience of this type feel themselves both part of a new community of a special type (a community made up of those who share a revised view of the world, produced by trauma, that they must continue to bear witness to) and apart from all usual social links.
However, for witnesses of disaster the traumatic element is not so much the encounter with the real as the encounter with “the gaze of the helpless other – child, animal – who does not know why something so horrifying and senseless is happening to him. It is not, as might be supposed, the gaze of a hero, willingly sacrificing himself, that is so striking to observers of tragedy, but “the gaze of a perplexed victim,” the passive, helpless casualty. It is this gaze that gives rise to the compassion felt by outsiders. It is not, as we might think, the outsiders in distant countries who are the passive ones in cases of humanitarian disasters, who do nothing, who do not want to get involved. Rather, it is the people caught up in the events themselves. They see the horrors that are engulfing them but cannot understand how such horrors are possible and are unable to act. Their gaze, the gaze of the uncomprehending victim, is unbearable and gives rise to guilt in witnesses to distant disaster. It is to avoid the pressure of this gaze that we feel compassion toward those in trouble. This compassion can be related to the reflexive nature of human desire, which is always desire for a desire. Compassion is “the way to maintain the proper distance towards a neighbor in trouble.” By giving, we present ourselves so that we like what we see when we look at ourselves from the position of the victim. By responding compassionately, we present ourselves as that which is desired by those who are suffering. This account does not in any sense invalidate compassion; on the contrary, it shows why it is so important and necessary. The reaction of the subject of compassion, the victim, is a separate matter.
I think there is some need for refinement in this passage from Jenny Edkins, a professor of international politics at the University of Wales (Whose hunger? Page 112-3. 2000). This is an interpretation of compassion, but I am holding out for the possibility that there is another possible interpretation of the compassionate action. What it is I am not sure, but I do find psychoanalysis useful even if it is totalizing in explaining people’s actions. That being said, I want to talk about the Real. I think the Real is less ‘that which cannot be symbolized’ but rather ‘that which has yet to symbolized’. Katrina seems an apropos discussion given the Edkins passage about natural disasters.
Many who were not in New Orleans had the reaction Edkins describes. I did not. I think this is because I have constantly been exposed to stories of catastrophies that have happened and also those that could have happened and even could happen. So, I saw Katrina as awful, but I am not shocked or awed or appalled. It was not an encounter with the Real for me. I think this is because I have symbolized it and, if not previously symbolized, it fit easily into my symbolic realm.
Therein lies the purpose of fantasy: a way to symbolize the as yet encountered, which delimits the realm of the Real. Here is another example; a professor of mine was once driving with his wife on the highway when there was a sudden explosion of noise, glass and wind. It took him a while to figure out that his windshield was struck by a large semi-trailer tire and was shattered. He pulled over, but in those first moments he encountered the Real. He was terrified and scared and had no idea what was happening nor what to do. Then he was able to process it and it became symbolized, allowing him to act and calm himself. This example shows the temporary (temporal) quality of the Real: it will become incorporated into the symbolic and lose its Real-ness. If that were ever to happen to him again the Real would have even less impact on him than it did. If it ever happens to me it will have less effect on me than it would have had because I have now incorporated into my symbolic realm. I have imagined (fantasized about) it and how I would act.
This may be why I like reality TV. It allows me to see things I would never imagine myself and to fantasize about how I would act in those situations. I can do this with fictional TV also, but the events on reality TV are more likely to be new to me than the fictional scenarios. In short, reality TV expands my symbolic realm via the fantasmic more than fictional TV. Because I have seen both Lost and Fight Club I would not be as afraid if the airplane I was in suddenly broke in two (even though there would be nothing I could do except carve a love message into my flesh). Because I have been an avid follower of Survivor I would be more capable of surviving on a desert island than I would be had I only seen Lost or Cast Away. I do not watch Reality TV to become a better survivalist but because it provides my symbolic identity with a richer experience. Maybe I would laugh more if I watched Will & Grace instead of The Real World, but Will’s exploits do not interest me at all.