Superinjunctions in ordinary life

The clip above, from Curb Your Enthusiasm, reveals something interesting about the recent furore over the superinjunctions that have been taken out by celebrities and bankers and so on in the UK. These superinjunctions effectively double the concealment of some business or personal detail that a powerful person doesn’t want the rest of us to know about: the superinjunction makes it illegal to report the fact that there was an injunction barring any reports on the issue in the first place. Liberal people find these superinjunctions very offensive. But far from being exceptions to the normal ‘freedom’ of our everyday lives in the nice, open, liberal, democratic West, superinjunctions are present at every level of our psychological, political, and economic lives. In what follows I don’t mean to provide some kind of excuse for the people who take out superinjunctions – they’re obscene even at the most basic level because they can afford these things in the first place – but want to suggest that as well as fighting the culture of literal superinjunctions we might also think about whether we should attempt to counteract the much more significant superinjunctions that we don’t always acknowledge. Our outrage at the legal superinjunctions might serve the ideological purpose of concealing these much more important hidden ones.

Back to the clip. Larry, who speaks first, makes an offer that is meant to be refused, but his role as a friend actually compels him to make the offer in the first place. The specifics of this offer aren’t important: the point is that we all make empty gestures like Larry’s all the time. Although the paradox is that they seem utterly useless, they serve a vital social function as symbolic gestures. There are really two twinned symbolic transactions here: (1) person A has to freely choose to do what is inevitable anyway, and (2) person B has to refuse the offer of something that is really just there to make the situation seem other than it is. Consider another simple example: imagine I upset my sister somehow. I have to apologize (my duty as a brother has the force of an injunction), but then she’s supposed to say ‘that’s OK: I know you didn’t mean it. You don’t owe me an apology’ (another injunction). We’re then both happy with one another and can get on with our lives. But was the apology really unnecessary? Of course not. Both the apology and its return were completely necessary: one of us freely choosing to do something that is required, the other turning down something that is offered. But we don’t acknowledge that we’re only acting because the rules compel us to. So here’s a psychological superinjunction, albeit a mostly harmless one.

We have political and economic superinjunctions too, however, and they’re more problematic. Consider our parliamentary democracy. Its greatest claim to justice is of course that we have a say in our government. We might quibble about the voting system or about the honour of individual politicians and so on, but common wisdom says that we have an ability, however imperfect, to chuck out a government we don’t like and to shape our own collective futures. Where are the injunctions and superinjunctions here? First, we are required to ‘freely’ assent to the parliamentary-democratic model for our political expression. But this is inevitable anyway. We can’t organize our political lives in any other way. If we attempt other forms of political expression, such as marching in protest at university tuition fees, the police will come out with horses and truncheons to terrify and bloody the protestors. Ultimately the political discussion has to take place in parliament because the system of our politics allows no alternative. But we have to ‘freely’ assent to this anyway by putting our cross on the ballot paper every few years and telling ourselves that although it’s an imperfect system it’s better than elsewhere. It’s forbidden to suggest that we’re locked into this system, and that we lack genuine political freedom. Anyone who points out that there are really just two injunctions here and that there is no basis to the claim that people in democratic countries live in political ‘freedom’ will be dismissed as dangerous radicals, subversives, anarchists, etc. (listen to two minutes of a BBC news report on any form of political expression outside parliament or the ballot box to see what I mean). Similar superinjunctions surround the criticism of capitalism, which we must ‘freely’ choose to live in, even though it’s inevitable. Critics of capitalism are immediately dismissed as unreal, idealistic, Stalinist, etc. So at the same time as our cultural discourse likes to suggest that we live in the most free system in the world, there’s an element of bluff here: that freedom is tightly and rigidly delimited, and it is forbidden to mention this. We act as if we’re really free, as if we don’t know that there are unwritten codes limiting our freedom and superinjunctions preventing us from being told about those codes. Politically and economically, then, we live with superinjunctions all the time.

The Twitter ‘outing’ of public figures who have taken out superinjunctions, whatever the truth of the claims, exposes another important detail: these legal, psychological, political, and economic superinjunctions are vulnerable. It just takes one Twitter user to reveal the secret that the legal superinjunction is trying to hide. But that causes the symbolic network to disintegrate, and those who benefit from the symbolic structure will take vigorous steps to protect their interests (the twitterer will be sought out and prosecuted). Similarly, it doesn’t take much to expose the fantasy ‘freedom’ at the heart of our political and economic predicament. Even the merest summary of Marx will do it.

But there are all kinds of other superinjunction situations. Consider marriage. We want people to freely choose to enter into a state of affairs that the social pressure makes, for a lot of people (particularly members of the royal family) inevitable anyway. But of course we live in a free society and we wouldn’t compel people to get married, would we? So there’s free choice. You can live alone. But then you’ll have to put up with endless pressure from your own family, talk about biological clocks, the need to contribute to the community by producing children, a public discourse of ‘hard-working families’ that makes you a pariah for not being normal, and so on. The fact that there is an injunction to marry (whether you’re gay or straight there’s no escape) is concealed by a superinjunction: there is no arbitrary rule compelling participation in an institution with a phenomenal two-thirds failure rate; it’s simply ‘natural’ to want to get married. Similarly, the fact that it’s not simply ‘natural’ to act in a masculine or feminine way, or to be gay, straight, bisexual, or whatever, but the application of highly developed and historically specific cultural codes, is concealed yet again by an injunction.

Here’s the frustrating final thought. Feminists, gender theorists, Marxists, ideology critics, and so on all fight these superinjunctions all the time, attempting to reveal the symbolic injunctions that lie at the root of a lot of what people ordinarily think of as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ political, economic, and social behaviour. But, in general, nobody believes them. The force of these superinjunctions, unlike the trivial ones concerning celebrity sexual or financial misdemeanours, is overpowering. And if something can be done to limit the ability of the rich to take out legal superinjunctions, the result will be a general sense that we’ve restored our accustomed level of freedom and that we live once more in a world without secrets. What a truly depressing outcome.


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