on November 16, 2012
Journalists, activists, newsmen, radio celebrities, scholars, freelancers, even politicians have written books about the turbulent political events of 2011, the so-called Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Many of these books quickly have become dated; the events in the former are still unfolding and the meaning of the latter is still not ascertainable. However, it is possible to take a historical snapshot of these two events, make a philosophical analysis under Marxian/Socialist principles, and still come out with a cogent historical explanation of their meaning which far surpasses a surface treatment by, say, the Brookings Institution. Briefly, this is Slavoj Zizek's interpretation of these epochal events.
Slavoj Zizek has been called "the most dangerous philosopher" in the West. He earned this moniker from the insight of his observations, the precision of his thought, and the incisiveness of his discourse. He receives this moniker from his analytic method, exhibited in this thin, but insightful, volume, of discussing philosophical or political issues through cultural icons. What other philosopher would engage into a discussion about the difference between reality and the real by analyzing The Wire? Who else would liken a good Bolshevik as having the Russian determination, American pragmatism and the innocent, malicious joy of Homer Simpson?
Zizek attempts to do two things with this book. On the one hand, he gives his perspective of the momentous events of 2011, the so-called Arab Spring, the London Urban Riots, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the other hand, but before discussing these events, he gives his assessment of this historical moment after the economic downturn of 2007 - 2008. Zizek explains any thought of the "down-trodden masses" being the lower worker strata of the economic chain, should be discarded. No, the proletariat of today are mid-level managerial worker staff, because they are the ones with the most at risk and the most to lose. Namely, at risk are the transportation, homes -- especially their residences ---- retirement or 401 K accounts, and other assets particularly devastated from the economic dislocations.
In addition to being the most dangerous philosopher alive, Zizek possesses a decided Gonzo quality of interjecting his own perspectives on society to such an extent that he, and society, becomes the subject. For example, his discussion about the changing face of economic reality is centered around an analysis of the TV show, "Wire." In the following chapter, when discussing the implications of Peter Sloterdijk's philosophy on the Welfare State, Zizek also brings in correspondences from the new movie adaptation of Coriolanus from Ralph Fiennes and other Shakespearean plays. This is classic Zizek; as a good Structuralist he will comment on any feature of contemporary society that supports his argument.
This scattered analysis is emblematic of Zizek's active curiosity and intellect. When applied to the momentous events of 2011, what he offers is not so much an in-depth analysis but observations of their import. The highlights of this discussion are the following:
For example, on the so-called Arab Spring he comments that in the wake of the Syrian civil war, whatever progress had been made is over. He maintains that Mousavi's Green Revolution in Iran opened the floodgates at Tahrir Square. In reality, Egypt had an active labor movement for at least ten years before Tahrir Square.
He comments on the European financial crisis. He astutely observes that Greece is being made the guinea pig for how neoliberal policies may be applied to nations.
He comments on the London Urban Riots of 2011. He comments that these riots are symptomatic of random, spontaneous, acts of group violence which will become more common in the future.
He comments on the Occupy Wall Street movement. He criticizes the movement its apparent lack of focus or goal. He writes of 60-something aging counterculture speaker saying, "Program? What program? We have no program," as an example of the superficial character of the movement. While this reviewer takes issue with this observation, as a speaker himself at Zuccotti Park, he should know wherefor he speaks.
These are only highlights. Of all the commentaries of 2011, the analysis of events offered by Zizek is by far the most probing and fascinating.
on December 29, 2012
Slavioj Zizek newest book, _The Year of Dreaming Dangerously_, was written simultaneously with his magnum opus _Less Than Nothing_. Although _Less Than Nothing_ is a far more philosophical accomplishment, _The Year of Dreaming Dangerously_ will surely attract a far greater readership. The book offers an impressive introduction to the political philosophy of Zizek, centered around a journalistic presentation and an otherwise philosophical analysis, and cultural critique of `the [global] event' of 2011.
Slavoj Zizek is an important political and cultural critic. Recently he has developed a strong interest in establishing his philosophical roots, from Hegel, to Marx, and onto Lacan (see his Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism). Zizek's reading of Hegel and Marx in "Less Than Nothing" is highly unique, directly aimed at demonstrating, first how the ideas of Hegel, Marx, and Lacan are relevant for understanding and mending the quadruple crisis we currently find the world (i.e. socio-economic, political (war, terrorism, protest), environmental, and personal (anxiety, fear, depression, not to mention unemployment, hunger)). Second he demonstrates how the Hegelian dialectic happens.
Nonetheless, I find "Less Than Nothing" a bit disorienting, a type of 'adolescent Hegelianism' (in contrast to the time honored "Old" versus "Young" Hegelian divide). I haven't made up mind about "Less than Nothing," surely it will become essential reading for Zizek supporters and critics alike. Personally I do believe it would benefit immensely from a Young Hegelian orientation or an engagement with Dialectical Critical Realism (for a highly innovative interpretation and dialectical development of Hegel and Marx see Roy Bhaskar's Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (Classical Texts in Critical Realism)).
In his book "The Year of Dreaming Dangerously" Zizek is at his best. He applies his blasphemous critiques and impious attitude toward power structures of the global order. More specifically he is interested in the revolutionary year of 2011. This is an analysis of contemporary politics couched in the theories of Lacan, Hegel, and Marx. The analysis of contemporary politics is often in the context of popular culture, from the TV series _The Wire_, to Shakespeare, to Homer Simpson, to pop-music artist David Guetta, the music of Wagner, through playwright Bertolt Brecht, and movie-directing/acting of Charlie Chaplin.
Zizek takes the events of 2011 (actually beginning with the financial collapse in 2007-8 and spilling into 2012 forward) and attempts to interpret them as a (Hegelian) totality. Whereas the last decade had been "definitely non-evental" (p. 97) in the Badiou sense of the term, the year of 2011 was a series of multiple events, that Zizek interprets as an event denoting the failures of capitalism and anti-democratic politics.
Zizek attempts to assemble these Badiovian events into a configuration capable of understanding them as a Whole, explaining them as a historical Structural phenomenon, with an eye towards mending the Causes (p. 26).
He begins his story with the financial collapse of Europe and the particular fiscal episode of Greece and the internal contradictions of China and the economic global order more generally (chapter 2). He then articulates (chapter 3) the general contradictions of oligopolistic/financial capitalism (my term not Zizek's), based on a new development to the Lacanian duality discourse of the Master (e.g. authority) versus the discourse of the University (e.g. reason), the new development is discourse of Financial Technocratic Expert (e.g. post-ideological system savior/reformer), reform destined to reinstitute more crises. In chapter 4 Zizek underscores the fact of an anti-democratic, racist, fascistic attitude emerging across the globe as a type of misplaced reaction to various global crises. In chapter 5, again based on Lacan and Marx, Zizek argues there is class split within Western capitalist societies, "between those who have nothing to lose and those who have everything to lose, between those without a stake in their community and those whose stakes are the greatest" (p. 60). Chapters 6 and 7 speak specifically to the title of the book, unfolding the Badiovian global event of 2011, from Arab Spring, to protests in Chinas, U.S. and global Occupy Wall Street movements, and more. Chapter 8 interprets the TV series "The Wire" as a precursor to the events of 2011, in its critique of contemporary Western societies. In the final two chapters Zizek attempts to offer some hope for transformation, as opposed to reforming, domestic and global orders. He suggests (quite similar to Badiou) that what is needed is a new fiction to offer an alternative vision of society. In typical Zizek fashion, he finds surprising inspiration. Namely in the sociopath. This is because the sociopath is he who abhors and rejects society. His sociopathic hero is found in Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
As he informs us in the introduction his goal is to provide a "'cognitive mapping; of our situation," to this I believe he finds considerable success.
The book is innovative and full of insightful analysis. Much like his _Less Than Nothing_ it is a demonstration in the Hegelian dialectic, not a theoretical disposition. In the end there is impressive coherence between chapters and a strong argument to understand the event(s) of 2011. These could be listed as: (1) the rise of the 2011 event(s) constitute a Totality of reaction to the failures of capitalism; (2) new class alliances have formed of salaried-managers and the marginally-employed/unemployed, i.e. the those well connected to community, those not; (3) the disconnection to community has manifested (progressive) protest and (regressive) violence and murder, and given rise to the "evil ethnic thing" and vicious racism; (4) there is "democratic illusion" (p. 87) whereby democracy is seen to be able to solve the crisis. However, Zizek maintains there is a deep contradiction between neoliberalism and democracy (p. 43); (5) the problems are systemic, so too must be the solution. No "stable change" or reform will be successful; (6) a new vision of society is necessary, the failures of old capitalism are all too obvious; (7) the new vision will have to move from old communism (capitalism without capitalism) to (a Blochian) something-yet-to-be determined.
Critic and philosopher Slavoj Zizek gathers his thoughts about last year's resistance to capitalism and globalization. They comprise loosely topical, often rambling and discursive chapters "outlining the contours of its hegemonic ideology, focusing on the reactionary phenomena (populist revolts in particular) that arise in reaction to social antagonisms". These themes segue into "the two great emancipatory movements of 2011--the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street" and then a discussion of The Wire. These sections consider how to fight the system's power without furthering its dominance.
The earlier selections float about ethnic tension, culture clash, and Western distrust of fundamentalist dogma. None of this discussion will be unfamiliar to his audience. Zizek roams around the wreckage of capitalism and the attempts to counter its damage. Marxian critiques dominate, although Zizek realizes that whatever (utopia shimmers behind the flames vaguely) can replace today's monolithic structure flits away, frustratingly for the reader if less so for him--as a veteran Slovene provocateur. Lacan, Jameson, Chesterton, Lenin, Rand, Hegel: the range of sometimes disparate thinkers intrigues, but the level of most of these contents prefers academic terms. The second sentence of the book's second paragraph embeds "a Greimasian semiotic square" with neither context nor apology.
However, clearer phrasing emerges for a patient reader. As in his previous work, he challenges the status quo yet, similar to street activists, sidesteps what must be done for practical reform. Hints of violence, overthrow, and revolution lurk, but peer out nearly rarely, as in the end of his Occupy chapter: "Is there a name for this reinvented democracy beyond the multi-party representational system? There is indeed: the dictatorship of the proletariat."
He stimulates his sympathetic readers while leaping clear of collusion with a discredited Marxist orthodoxy. This clever stance may encourage fellow travelers, but it may irritate those readers wishing for clear guidance. What can be gleaned sparkles here and there amid the dust-ups and pepper spray. He appeals to the radical left to further the threatened gains of liberalism. He pointedly asks what happens, as in the Arab uprisings, if democracy (as of the writing of this book in June 2012) grows, while poverty remains?
"Hysterical actors" jump out of the marches with Molotovs. Occupy's protesters demanded more than recycling, clicking online to donate a few bucks to charity, or a one-percent donation via a Starbucks cappuccino. Such desperation, as we know, fizzled out or was stamped out soon for many of last year's activists.
Today, their rage simmers. "The self-propelling circulation of Capital remains more than the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled." Perhaps Marx can help. Freedom beckons not as an end achieved within the political sphere but ultimately in the liberation of the network of "social relations," Zizek reminds us. Meanwhile, we may vote for a candidate, but never on who owns what, who controls the financiers who control the politicians who control the electorate. Citizens, trapped by representational democracy in cahoots with capitalists, had to bailout the banks. Banks, not uncontrolled government spending, he insists, bear the blame for the breakdown and the taxpayer's forced repair of the rapacious system that rules nearly the entire world.
The chapter on Occupy Wall Street succeeds best in raising necessary questions about where (if far less so how) to confront this predicament. Zizek cites Alain Badiou: "Today, the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It's called Democracy." This articulates, in Zizek's paraphrase, an embrace of a "democratic illusion". This deludes the populace that only democratic procedures can foment possible change.
Citizens lull themselves into a situation where only "legal rights" can be exercised. For instance, nobody can countenance taking over the banks and putting them "under the people's control". The people persist within dream that overshadows "any radical transformation of capitalist relations". The same parties keep getting elected which ruled over the triumphant recovery led by and benefiting the bankers.
Three closing sections enter into pop culture and belief, as they settle into or rise above our political and economic oppression. "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King, Monteverde's Orfeo, and the recent film adaptation of Coriolanus typify the broader cultural connections Zizek enjoys, in another loosely composed but intermittently involving exploration of rebels and sociopaths on screen, following a look at the likes of McNulty, Lester, and Omar from The Wire. Finally, Pascal's concept of the "deus absconditus," the "hidden God," infuses a "decisionist nihilism" that rejects a safe moderation. Pascal's "existentialist wager" melts into the dramatic skepticism of the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark before transforming into a return to Hegel's rejection of the known for the unknown, in this novel if blurred vision of radical utopia. All this winds up chaotic, willfully so or due to the author's expectation that his diligent and combative readers do the heavy lifting to enact change, beyond that of intellectual suggestions or ideological explorations.
Admittedly (I read the book and wrote this before I read Jay P's Oct. 2012 review here; I also noticed editorial laxity that adds to the haphazard feel in this collection of what Jay P. documents so well as an unfortunate drawback), Zizek without acknowledgement recycles material. (See also my review of his "Violence" in Dec. '08.) This collection resembles a rapidly compiled anthology rather than a bold, fresh contribution from a familiar provocateur. Still, Zizek raises, again, this era's telling question: "is playing with the capitalist beast the only game in town?"
on December 6, 2013
This is a decidedly mixed bag--after reading 12 or so Zizek books, one wonders if Benjamin's theories about mechanical reproduction and the work of art applies to Lacanian essays. The focus on the 2011 does thematically tie the book together with references to both the Arab Spring and Occupy. Some of this material will seem familiar to those who have read some of Zizek's arguments in the British popular press, which is forgivable given that Zizek was working on __Less than Nothing__ concurrently with parts of this work. This, however, gives the analysis a much more fragmented feel than one expects from Zizek as well as a familiarity with some of the arguments involved in a way that has not been in his longer, more philosophical works. Often, particularly on Asia and the middle East, Zizek seems to take media reportings in the US and Europe at more face value than he should. He misses key issues in Egypt that have gone on for about nine years and ties to them to more easily understood narratives in the Western media, such as the Iranian green revolution. Furthermore, two years out, a lot of this analysis seems dated as Egypt and Syria have gone different ways from the vision in the book. That said, some of the criticisms of Occupy as he saw it where decidedly dead-on.
on December 19, 2012
Many of Zizek's readers (fan/groupies) are likely to be disappointed with this offering, especially those who consider themselves philosophical scholars and/or members of the intellectual bourgeoisie. For the rest of us, it's likely to be stimulating and thought provoking.
In "The Year of Dreaming Dangerously," Zizek gets down to business. And I don't mean that in a neo-liberal, capitalistic way, even if there is an excess of surplus-value here. Rather, and uncharacteristically perhaps, Zizek goes straight to the point. Instead of five or six hundred pages of entertaining obfuscation, this book is only 135 pages of purely condensed Zizekian wisdom.
Of course (pop)cultural references are peppered throughout the book, including an entire chapter dedicated to the TV series, "The Wire," which IMHO is the best television ever produced. Hegel, Marx and Lacan remain at the heart of this delivery, as Zizek lays his political and economic cards on the table. Is it a winning hand? As always, that depends on what you're holding and whether, or not, you believe he's bluffing.
Zizek goes even one step further, and some might say for the first time, by advocating a direct course of action ... hmm ... or is it inaction?
"Resistance is futile! Prepare to be assimilated!" say the Borg in Star Trek Next Generation. According to Zizek, if you are resisting, you've already been assimilated and in fact are a critical component to the functional continuance of the system you are resisting against. Indeed!
Zizek uses a Cuban example; if the fight against the black market ever succeeded, the entire Cuban economy would collapse. He also points to modern culture's fascination with sociopaths (Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, Dexter, etcetera) and says that because the social bonds that holds society together have failed, we need sociopaths for society to function "normally." For the sake of society itself, only sociopaths can save us by breaking the rules.
Zizek suggests that the ongoing financial, ecological and social crisis is not brought about by sociopathic reckless spending, greed, and ineffectual banking regulations, etcetera, it's the system itself. Like a deep psychological mental illness, the more you resist, the more it persists.
The solution: stop resisting. Stop worrying about how to prevent the financial, ecological and social collapse, in order to keep the whole system going. Instead, Zizek recommends a model akin to Lenin during WWI: "ignore all 'patriotic' worries about the motherland in danger, cooly step back and observe the deadly imperialist dance while laying the foundations for the future revolutionary process." Good advice?
Zizek may not be alone here. Other deep thinkers advocate for the same. In "Beyond Civilization," author Daniel Quinn suggests going the way of Maya--shedding our culture, society and built environments, which are inherently unsustainable, by simply walking away from them. Buckminster Fuller famously posits, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality.To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
How are we to accomplish such things?
Zizek: "what we need is a subject who combines the dedication of Jack Bauer [rogue counterterrorist agent, 24], the inventive pragmatic spirit of Stringer Bell [a drug lord's top general and strategic planner, The Wire] and the innocently malicious joy of Homer Simpson."
Whether you're a reader (or fan) of Zizek, or not, this book is worth your time, serious reflection and action/inaction. D'OH!
on April 26, 2014
You either read Zizek to find out what he is about in which case you will need to get familiar with Lacan and Hegel, not an easy task. Or you can just read Zizek and be thrilled with him, that someone is saying how it really is, why the world is fugged up in a way that you can understand. And what to do about it. Anything Zizek says or writes is worth a million times what it costs in money and time to do so.
on January 13, 2013
Zizek's latest work takes on one the most internationally tumultuous years since the fall of the Wall, 2011. In true Zizekian form, he aims his critical analysis towards everything from religion to sitcoms, quite entertainingly as always. The deeper your taken into the book the most important events for the philosophical and political Left (the Arab Spring, Euro-nationalism, and the Occupy Movement) are given the most time. His insights on the return of and the paradoxical nature of ethnic-politics I found most fascinating. Furthermore, as an active participant in OWS I can say his eulogy of the movement is an accurate and necessary moment of self-reflection, yet hopeful enough to take positive lessons forward into new movements.
My one critique may come as a surprise from some who primarily reads Zizek as a form of entrainment: he gets sidetracked too much. Normally Zizek's asides are welcome and his lengthy analogies are useful in the construction of his argument. Unfortunately, there was something that seemed a bit unfocused and needless about many of them this time. His prolonged analysis of the show "The Wire" is mostly what I'm referring to. Beyond that, I can only launch my usual critiques of Zizek, such as his tendency to fall into Hegelian abstraction opposed to engaging with actualities of politics.
All in all, it was well worth the read, and a much needed introduction to what I'm sure will be a highly discussed year for a great time to come.
on April 12, 2014
I am a newcomer to Zizek and find his prose at times impenetrable. Even so, this is a great book. In effect, he cuts the binding knot that suggests that one can't criticize the status quo without proposing an alternative. This trap for the unwary destroys critical perspective as it is usually followed with a diatribe about failed utopias: "better than to accept the status quo that dream impossible and dangerous dreams."
Zizek acknowledges a larger truth: History happens, and while we make it, we don't design the outcome, we merely respond to realities pre-existent and sometimes, perhaps often, maybe even always, unknown and unknowable. It is enough to say "no," to withhold consent from what does not work, to note the contradictions and failures of the known.
I especially liked his chapter on the Wire, and recommend that readers who are put off by the first few chapters jump immediately to that chapter, and then start again. The book is short. The brief detour will repay the effort. The Wire turns out less to be entertainment than sophisticated commentary of a socio-political crisis of legitimacy. I couldn't agree more.
His chapter on Occupy Wall Street was similarly engaging, if somewhat disappointing. Yes, there is a rage afoot in the world. Yes, there is an economy separate from that which generates statistics about economic growth. But I would have liked to have seen a little more discussions of the new worlds being conceived and created by the overlooked. I especially liked his discussion about the futility of voting: the choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum is no real choice at all.
I will re-read this book, and look to other works of Zizek's.
on February 7, 2013
This book is critical, because it compares upheavals of both the left and the right (as well as unpolitical). Here we find that the energy behind the mounting upheaval is growing, and Zizek infuses his usual energetic style and pop culture analysis toward apt syntheses. While the book takes a couple of confusing turns, it hits the right notes in the ongoing struggle to define the communist Idea in a dynamic and volatile world.
on December 25, 2012
THis book rules. It was my first Zizek book and I've swiftly expanded to about 3 or 4 others.. You can breeze right through it. I enjoy both long books and short ones. It feels great to plow through a book that both brief, pointed, and intellectual.