The Missing Ink
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware
of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’
The structure here is more refined than it might appear: although the worker is unable to signal that what heis saying is a lie in the prearranged way, he none the less succeeds in getting his message across – how? By inscribing the very reference to the code into the encoded message, as one of its elements. Of course, this is the standard problem of self-reference: since the letter is written in blue, is its entire content therefore not true?
The answer is that the very fact that the lack of red ink is mentioned signals that it should have been written in red ink. The nice point is that this mention of the lack of red ink produces the effect of truth independently of its own literal truth: even if red ink really was available, the lie that it is unavailable is the only way to get the true message across in this specific condition of censorship.
Is this not the matrix of an efficient critique of ideology – not only in ‘totalitarian’ conditions of censorship but, perhaps even more, in the more refined conditions of liberal censorship? One starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants – then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the ‘red ink’: we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict – ‘war on terrorism’, ‘democracy and freedom’, ‘human rights’, and so on – are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. In this precise sense, our ‘freedoms’ themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.