Welcome to the Desert of the Real

By Slavoj Zizek, 10 July 2000

Slavoj Zizek takes us through the Four Fundamental Concepts of the Millenium.

Are we fully aware of how uncanny our obsession with the Millennium Bug was? Were we really dealing here with the threat of a simple mechanical malfunctioning? Of course, the digital network is materialised in electronic chips and circuitry; but one should always bear in mind that this circuitry is in a way "supposed to know": it is supposed to give body to a certain knowledge, and it is this knowledge — or, rather, its lack (the inability of computers to read "00") — that caused all the worries . What the Millennium Bug confronted us with was the fact that our ‘real’ life itself is sustained by a virtual order of objectivised knowledge whose malfunctioning can have catastrophic consequences. Jacques Lacan called this objectivised Knowledge — the symbolic substance of our being, the virtual order that regulates the intersubjective space — the ‘big Other’.

What effectively threatened us under the name of the ‘Millennium Bug’ was the suspension of the Matrix. Here we can see in what sense The Matrix (the Wachowski brothers’ film) was right: the reality we live in is regulated by the invisible and all-powerful digital network to such an extent that its collapse can cause ‘real’ global disintegration. Which is why it is a dangerous illusion to claim that the Bug could have brought liberation: if we were to be deprived of the artificial digital network that mediates and sustains our access to reality, we would not have found natural life in its immediate truth, but the unbearable waste land — as Morpheus says to Neo in the film: "Welcome to the desert of the real!"

What, then, was the Millennium Bug? Perhaps, the ultimate example of what Lacan called objet petit a, the ‘small other’, the object-cause of desire, a tiny particle of dust which gives body to the lack in the big Other, the symbolic order. And it is here that ideology enters: the Bug was the sublime object of ideology. The very term is tell-tale with regard to its three meanings: a glitch/defect; an insect; a fanatic. This drift of meaning performs the most elementary ideological operation: a simple lack or glitch imperceptibly acquires positive existence, it becomes a disturbing ‘insect’ endowed with a certain psychic attitude (zealotry) — and the malfunctioning has all of a sudden a cause, a zealot that should be exterminated as an insect... we are already knee-deep into paranoia. Is the Bug not the best animal metaphor for the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew: a rabid insect which introduces degeneration and chaos into social life, the true hidden cause of social antagonisms?

Towards the end of December 1999, the main Slovene Right-wing newspaper ran a headline: "Is it really a danger — or a cover?", implying that some obscure financial circles staged the Y2K panic and will use it to enact a gigantic swindle. In a move which symmetrically mirrors the Rightist paranoia, Fidel Castro denounced the Bug scare as a plot promoted by the large computer companies and designed to seduce people into buying new computers. And once the scare was over, accusations were heard from all quarters that there must have been a reason why there was such a fuss about nothing, some hidden (financial) interest which promulgated the scare in the first place — it cannot be that all the programmers simply made such a big mistake! The topic of the discussion thus turned into a typical post-paranoiac dilemma: was there a Bug at all, whose catastrophic consequences were prevented by the careful preventive measures, or was there simply nothing, so that things would have continued to run smoothly also without the billions of dollars spent on these measures?

This, again, is the objet petit a, the void that ‘is’ the object-cause of desire, at its purest: a certain ‘nothing at all’, an entity about which it is not clear even if it ‘really exists’ or not, and which nonetheless, like the eye of a storm, causes a gigantic commotion all around itself. In other words, was the Millennium Bug not a MacGuffin of which Hitchcock himself would have been proud?

Slavoj Zizek