Breaking the Rules

Harry Stopes · Žižek and Assange

‘At first I treated you as not an idiot, out of politeness,’ Slavoj Žižek said to Julian Assange last weekend, ‘but more and more I have to admit that you are not an idiot.’ Žižek and Assange were on stage at the Troxy in East London, watched by a crowd of nearly 2000 people who had paid £25 each for a ticket. If Assange changes his mind about not publishing his memoirs, he won’t be short of readers. Amy Goodman, chairing the discussion, asked Assange to respond to Joe Biden’s accusation that he is a ‘high-tech terrorist’. As Assange floundered, Žižek stepped in. ‘You are a terrorist,’ he said, ‘but in the sense that Gandhi is a terrorist.’ He quoted Brecht: ‘What is robbing a bank, compared to founding a new bank? If you are a terrorist, what are then they who accuse you of terrorism?’ Assange looked grateful.

‘You don’t just break the rules,’ Žižek said to Assange, ‘you break the rules about how we are allowed to break the rules.’ But Assange doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with this. And perhaps, in his determination to define himself as a journalist, he has in some ways made himself more vulnerable, not less. If WikiLeaks is simply part of the history of the liberal free press, or of investigative journalism, it is normalised, reduced. It makes it too easy to say, as Žižek put it, ‘Why yes of course we agree with the idea, we just think it has been executed irresponsibly.’

This seems to be more or less the view of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaker and the founder of OpenLeaks, which gathers information from anonymous whistleblowers but rather than publishing it raw, as WikiLeaks does, passes it on to an organisation of the source’s choosing (Assange outlined a similar idea in 2009). ‘We want to be a neutral conduit,’ Domscheit-Berg told Forbes last year. ‘That’s what’s most politically sustainable as well.’ But political sustainability was never the aim of WikiLeaks. ‘We’re going to fuck them all,’ Assange wrote in an email in January 2007, just after the site had been set up. ‘We’re going to crack the world open and let it flower into something new.’


  • 10 July 2011 at 8:56am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Assange seems to have been coated with hubris. It's O.K. to doubt the words of politicians whatever their provenance, but much of what I read in those famous documents was less than world-shaking (or world-cracking). Even if we assume that he meant the world of politics he was going to crack, the text fails by a long way to convince me that he understands what he was doing. If his aim was not political sustainability, what was it?

    • 10 July 2011 at 9:32am
      orlp says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Aren't you being a bit optimistic?

    • 10 July 2011 at 12:27pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Well for the last year-ish he has been chasing political sustainability. It's understandable in the context of the reaction to him in the US (high-tech terrorist, should be hunted down and captured etc), but the point I'm making is that it doesn't seem achievable given what WikiLeaks has already done. He's never going to be invited to the White House press correspondents dinner so he might as well forget about it. In the earlier years of WL he seems to have had a more anarchic view of what it was about - however vague and poorly developed it was.

  • 10 July 2011 at 5:01pm
    JWA says:
    I have to say I went along as bit of a sceptic of Assange - but I was quite impressed by him - more articulate and reasonable, and not overtly paranoid - the usual charge. He's also clearly done well to exchange Mark Stephens for Gareth Pierce as his defence counsel. Although Wikileaks might not have had a huge impact in the West - it was almost certainly a contributing factor to the Arab Spring (they mentioned leaks related to Tunisia several times, I don't know with what validity). But the real impact in the west hasn't been on the politicians - the effect on mainstream media - a way point in their loss of influence - backed up this week. Assange would do well to adopt Zizek's rebranding - but equally it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he won't someday be regarded as a great crusading liberal journalist. I await the sympathetic Clooney reclamation, although the rape charges will probably have to be dropped first... to be fair Wikileaks also did alert the West to 15,000 more deaths than ever officially recognised. - even if all the other exposures don't amount to much - this one should.

  • 11 July 2011 at 3:34am
    bilejones says:
    Of course Assange is a terrorist. The likes of Biden are terrified of what he reveals about them.