Quote it Like you Stole it: Living in the End Times Part 1

With ‘Quote it Like you Stole it’ I want to go back a little to the original intentions of this blog: to disseminate and debate leftist theoretical ideas in the soundbyte age.  Here, I’m going to start again by talking about the ideas in Zizek’s Living in the End Times, a book that should have been a massive hit, coming after the excellent ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’, and being released at the apex of Zizek’s mainstream popularity. What we got was a bit of dud; replete with complex passages, baffling rants, obscure anecdotes and a metric tonne of incidental detail. You only have to read themainstream  reviews to conclude that (although I’ll make an exception for Fredric Jameson, for whom attacking obscurity would be like the Lyotard calling the kettle ‘postmodern’) most people read this  book in a bit of a haz  and principally tried to figure out what the hell it was about from the blurb.  Zizek’s subsequent talks on the book did not so much explain any of this, as opposed to going completely off topic, the dimensions of which are now happily contained in the paperback ‘afterword’.

While I am more than aware that, in the halls of the sophisticated intelligentsia to which I have occasionally been invited (orat least looked in the window at), Zizek has gone from that cool guy you reference with regard to his obscurity to that bloated, over-hyped, reactionary mainstream populist, I am going to risk my credibility by declaring that I think he is an excellent, challenging thinker with a penchant for brilliance despite a tendancy to overcompensate. Cool status: high risk.

So, without further ado, lets have a look at Zizek’s book and see what we can prise out of it.

What Kind of Book is This?

OK, that was a bluff. Before we go much further it’s important to place this book in context. Zizek’s aim with his work is not to create a programme for social change. He can be found cursing those who come to his talks expecfting ‘a revolution without a revolution’. Principally, he is a theorist as sees the task of philosophy as being about reconceptualizing the questions we are asking, and demonstrating how the way we posit problems is part of the problem itself. As he recounts in Zizek!, when you have a real problem, don’t ask a philosopher. When, however, you appear to be stuck in a deadlock between mutually incompatible opposites (Zizek’s approach to multiculturalism would be an obvious approach here) a philosopher might be able to throw new light on the problem.

This, roughly, is how we should approach the 5 stagesof grief that give the book structure (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance). I’m not really going to go into the Interludes because I think that while, read a certain way, they can add a certain depth to proceedings, they are by and large in need of editing and simply substract from the sene that there is a coherent whole here. Each aspect of grief, of Living in the End Times, presupposes an approach to the problem which is flawed, or needs further thought out. Zizek is therefore tasked with making us look differently at each aspect, as times elevating a contingent ‘problem’ in it’s solution (as with anger) and sometimes demonstrating the futility of an apparent set of solutions (as with bargaining). Changes the way we think about problems, or, more precisely, changing the way we respond with grief reactions to the immanent catastrophe, is what’s at stake. Nothing more, nothing less.

However, while this is how I see it, this reading is a little too neat. This is where the context of being a slightly  pathological reader of Zizek’s work comes in. Despite seeing all the limitations, I keep coming back for more, and the limitation here is that, in Zizek’s oeurve, there are two types of work.

The first is the trailblazer: the focused, concise, and moving books which are precisely aimed and revalatory. The Puppet and the Dwarf, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, arguably The Ticklish Subject, at least for the first 4 chapters, Looking Awry, and so on. Then, there are the rambling, somewhat out-of-joint books that goes on for longer, adds up to less, and ultimately appear like a random selection of Zizek’s thoughts and, as a friend once pointed out, contain more than their fair share of airport metaphors or references to airport bookshops. In Defence of Lost Causes, Plague of Fantasies, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, I’m looking at you. On the scale of Farce to Fantasies I’m definitely putting Living in the End Times in the camp of untidy, rushed, messy and insufficiently edited books. At times it feels like Verso sees Zizek as a license to print money, andresembles a comic book company putting out endless Batman tie-in books that are basically a mess but hey,  everyone will buy a Batman book and then agonize about where it fits into the continuity so why not?

Really, then, let’s get started:

Chapter 1: Denial

The first chapter deals with the utopian liberalism – the belief that liberalism can, if pushed far enough, deal with the inherent problems of capitalism. As above, we are here dealing with an attempt to show that this mode of thinking is part of the problem, a task to be achieved by reading it’s limitations.

The basic argument in the opening passages, illustrated with a complex myriad of exotic examples, is about two aspects of Law. The first is clear enough: Law functions not so much through prohibitions but through creating exceptions to the prohibitions and regulating the manner of their expression. Secondly, the way in which legal situations change, really change, is not by changing the status of those inevitably excluded by the Law – the Daleks, the poor, women, etc – but by an analysis which finds the problem within the entire system itself. This is illustrated neatly by the conflict between Gandhi and Ambedkar, the conflict between redeeming the untouchables and ‘honouring’ them, and Ambedkar’s view that “As long as there are castes, there will be outcasts.”. Indeed, they are functionally necessary, in as much as the debt-bonded and incarcerated are necessary today. We then move on to the arbitrary violence that ‘founds’ the Law, “The dimension of the law that the law cannot admit to publicly” (25). This is the point, emphasised with reference to Lenin, that “one should take responsibility for the revolutionary act not covered by the big Other…An act proper is not just a strategic intervention into a situation, bound by its conditions – it retroactively creates its conditions.”

So far, so good, but so far it’s hard to argue that we have broken any new ground. Zizek’s reading of the act inspired by Badiou has been part of his theoretical edifice for some time now. However, here is where things get interesting:

“This brings us to the contemporary liberal idea of global justice, whose aim is not only to characterize all past injustices as collective crimes, for it also involves the politically corret utopia of “restituting” the past collective violence (towards blacks, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants…) by payment or legal measures. This is the true utopia, the idea that a legal order can make recompense for its founding crimes, thereby retroactively cleansing itself of its guilt in regaining its innocence.” (35)

The highest form of liberalism, which abhors the regulation of other by our own moral standards, is caught in a tension between its market form and personal form, as exemplified by Zizek in the contemporary liberal (for personal individuality, tolerance) and Right-wing (market forces, conservative family values) ideologies: “We thus get the double paradox of traditionalist Rightist supporting teh market economy while ferociously rejecting the vulture and mores that economy engenders, and his counterpoint, the muliculturalist Leftists, resisting the market…while enthusiastically enforcing the ideology it engenders. “ (37)

In this ‘value-neutral’ zone, we not only are reduced to the somewhat pathological, egoistically inclined individuals, supported in our abtility to ignore all that does not provide for a utilitarian advantage, but  encouraged to believe that this elevation and personalization of the market is somehow mechanical, scientific,and value-free. This approach, what Zizek calls “ideology at it’s purest” engenders the violence of librelalism, in which subjects can ‘choose’ to relate to the Law but only if they make the right choice. Zizek takes this up particularly with regard to multiculturalism, seeing the supposed choice between true and limited multiculturalism, (i.e. allowing full expression or rejecting the label), concluding that the only way to confront this deadlock, looping back to the start, is with the creation a new Universal “that of an antagonistic struggle which, rather than taking place between particular communities,splits each community from within, so that the “trans-cultural” link between communities is one of a shared struggle.

Personally, I don’t think this is the strongest chapter in the book. I wish that less time had been spent rectifying or finding new examples to illustrate previously made points. The key feature is in explaining the falseness, or denial, in the liberal vision. Frankly, there is muchmore to be said here, and there are few people I’d rather here it from.

Final Grade: B-

Chapoter 2: Anger

This chapter is much more interesting. It approaches the issue we’ve been hearing about a lot in texts like Toscano’s  Fanatasism and so on. Basically, it considers the proper status of  revolutionary morality. and ends up in a fascinating conclusion (although not altogether surprising, if you’re familiar with either Violence: Six Sideways Reflections and Zizek’s writing on religion more broadly).

Religious violence is on the rise today, according to Zizek, because:

“…we live in an era which perceives itself as post-ideological. Since great public causes can no longer be mobilized, since our hegemonic ideology calls on us to enjoy life and to fulfil ourselves, it is difficult for the majority of humans to overcome their revulsion at torturing and killing other human beings. Since the majority are spontaneously “moral” in this way, a larger “sacred Cause is neede, which will make individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religious or ethnic belonging fit this role perfectly.” (97)

This observation is counterposed to Zizek’s reading of the Christian gesture. While, undoubtedly Zizek views religions as basically contradictory and opportunistic, the radicalism of Christ, and importantly, the violence of Christ (in the sense of the social damage inflicted) should not be ignored. Taking seriously Christ’s claims about the need to hate one’s father, to bring not peace but a sword, Zizek reads the Gospels in the vein of Badiou, arguing:

“At the very core of Christianity there is a radically different project: that of a destructure negativity which ends not in chaotic Void, but reverts (organizes itself) into a new Order, imposing itself on reality. For this reason, Christianity is anti-Wisdom: wisdoms tells ust aht all our efforts are vain, that everything ends in chaos while Christianity madly insists on the impossible. Love, in the Christian form, is certainly not wise.” (116)

He continues:

“Love is the force of this universal link which, in an emancipator collective, connects people directly, in their singularity, by-passing their particular hierarchical determinations. Terror is terror out of love for the universal-singular others and against the particular. This terror names exactly the same things as the work of love.” (117)

Zizek’s question here becomes whether we can have an emancipatory politics which does not shun the Neighbour and reject them from ethical consideration. It this ‘excess’ in Christianity which makes it potentiality subversive as, as above, it threatens to directly embrace the Neighbour as ourselves, seeing ourselves, and the excluded, as parts of this universal category. Crucially, this involves a suspension of ‘culture’. Zizek writes:

“One of the most elementary cultural skills is to know when (and how) to pretend not to know (or notice), how to go on and act as if something which has happened not in fact happen. If a person close by involuntarily farts burps, the proper thing to do is to ignore it, not to reassure him…” (133)

This opposition, between the theological-political, the righteous and fanatical anger which is excessive, versus the polite and understanding of cultural norms, is what is important to emphasize. Zizek is returning to his notion that, ultimately, Hitler “was not violent enough” in the sense that he did not aim at the whole structure of the social body, which is what Paul’s christianity does. The earlier part of the chapter, which discusses one of Zizek’s seemingly favourite topics, Karadic’s poetry, is eerily redoubled with the suggestion that, yes, it is only in our immanent commitment to higher ethical ideal than real revolutionary change can happen. So, in reading the Anger in the post-modern era as formally correct but ultiamtely, in it’s target and approach, to nostalgic and insufficiently thought through, we are left with a view of political commitment which strives towards the complete, ecstatic and self-annihiliating cause of a fundamentalist but with much more radical co-ordinates. Obviously, this is a risky topic, which is why (I guess) the  window-dressing is so complex. However, it does make for an interesting and rare programmatic statement on Zizek’s part. What if it is not fundamentalism that is the real enemy, but rather (as above in the chapter on Liberalism) the notion that we are at a perfectly rational, culturally mature, mediating state which is non-ideological is in fact the real problem? It’s interesting to note how this rejection of the cultural and the seeking of truth in the being-together is at work in the recent, seemingly now forgotten, statements of the Insivible Committee as well.

Overall Grade: A-

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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