Cirque du Žižek

It fell to US journalist Adam Kirsch, writing in The New Republic in 2008, to encapsulate in a single phrase the disconcerting experience of reading a book by Slavoj Žižek. Kirsch called Žižek ‘the deadly jester’, a description that managed to bring together the Slovenian philosopher’s showmanship with his extreme political stance (he is as far to the left politically as he is to the right alphabetically), while also suggesting that these two sides are related: that this ‘dangerous’ philosopher is all the more dangerous for his reputation as ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’. According to this popular view, Žižek’s philosophy is a Trojan horse – a gaudy offering to which the threat of violence is, as he might say himself, ‘immanent’.

Conceived in this way, the Žižek experience is like watching a scene from a Batman movie, incidentally one of the philosopher’s favourite franchises. First, we have the crowd-pleasing Spectacle, a Cirque du Žižek of highwire philosophy and ideological contortionism – of political theory, psychoanalysis, dirty jokes and Hollywood schlock. But the scene soon turns to one of horror. Spilling out of a little red car, a bunch of goons made up to look like Hegel, Marx and Jacques Lacan run in all directions at once and spray the audience with noxious gas. At which point the real Žižek steps forward – the apologist for totalitarianism and admirer of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, whose celebration of revolutionary mayhem – ‘Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent’ – echoes round the Big Top.

My only problem with this characterisation is that, in one sense at least, it has Žižek backwards. True, to the extent that Žižek is a Marxist, he seems perennially split between Groucho and Karl. But the mistake is to think that it’s his analysis that is silly and his political stance that is sinister. In fact it’s his analysis of capitalism that is ‘deadly’, in the sense of being keen or incisive, and his communism that is a joke in poor taste.

Take, for example, Trouble in Paradise, a wonderful and at times ridiculous disquisition on the state and logic of late capitalism. The ‘paradise’ of the title is the world envisaged by Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s – a world in which liberal capitalist democracy, having triumphed over communism in the Cold War, would become the only system or ideology to which countries all over the globe would aspire. But as even Fukuyama now accepts, this paradise turned out to be a mirage. As Žižek puts it, the world is approaching an ‘apocalyptic zero-point’ where issues of intellectual property, ecology, biogenetics and inequality (‘new systems of apartheid’) will come to the fore. Moreover, the ‘eternal marriage’ between capitalism and democracy is breaking down, and this breakdown can itself be traced to liberal capitalism’s victory over communism. To put it in (vulgar) Marxist terms: with the end of Soviet-style communism capitalism lost its antithesis, the system against which it defined itself, and which defined itself against it. And what is left in its wake is not the synthesis predicted by Marx – the synthesis of abundant industrial production and socio-economic equality – but a synthesis of capitalist exploitation (of humankind and nature) and authoritarianism. Hence the growing ‘democratic deficit’ in Europe, the religio-capitalist farrago in Turkey, and the rise and rise of that phenomenon known as ‘capitalism with Asian values’.

All this is set out with flare and brilliance, and where Žižek oversteps the mark he does so with his clown shoes on, the better to advertise his doing so. (I love his suggestion that since ‘Gangnam Style’ reached a billion YouTube views on the 21 December 2012, the ancient Mayans were right to predict that civilisation would end on that date!) But, again, his analysis is a serious one, and when it comes to teasing out the absurdities of capitalism in the twenty-first century Žižek is at his manic best – less a jester than a holy fool. As we know, ‘the market’ likes to paint itself as the servant of individual choice as opposed to the ruthless master of demand. But perhaps less obvious is the way in which this manoeuvre is predicated on a perverse notion of freedom. Our ‘unfreedom’, writes Žižek, ‘appears as its opposite’:

[W]hen we are deprived of universal healthcare, we are told that we are given a new freedom of choice (to choose our healthcare provider); when we can no longer rely on long-term unemployment and are compelled to search for a new precarious job every couple of years or maybe even every couple of weeks, we are told that we are given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and discover our unexpected creative potential …

For the fully rounded human being whose ‘formal’ freedoms (rights etc) might form the basis of a deeper freedom – social, economic, ‘spiritual’ – we have substituted an ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self’.

Jokes are central to Žižek’s analysis, not because they win him an audience but because they point up absences and all the little ‘unknown knowns’ that sustain the dominant ideology. Thus, when Žižek tells the story of the man who orders coffee without cream and is told that, since there is no cream, he will have to settle for coffee without milk, he isn’t merely being cute, or isn’t only being cute; he’s drawing attention to the ‘complex interplay between what is said and what is not said, the un-said implied in what is said’. Offered the ‘freedom’ to buy our own healthcare, it is up to us to investigate what this freedom might be lacking. Is it coffee without cream or coffee without milk? Or is it ‘the thing without itself’ – coffee without coffee, freedom without freedom?

In Absolute Recoil, Žižek endeavours to elevate such ‘dialectical’ thinking into a ‘universal ontological principle’. It that sounds forbidding, let me assure you that the reality is far more daunting. Absolute Recoil is a massive work that purports to take us ‘towards a new foundation of dialectical materialism’, and the route to this theoretical prize lies through some very tough terrain. You will have to have the right philosophical clobber. I don’t mind admitting that at times I felt as if I was trying to walk across the Nullarbor in skinny jeans and swim-fins.

Essentially, dialectical materialism is a theory of natural and social evolution which holds that the world and universe are composed of material elements only, and are, in principle, knowable. Clearly, all life is in a state of flux, but such changes as occur are preconditioned by changes that have occurred in the past and will themselves condition changes in the future. Dialectical materialism, in other words, is the study of natural transformation; and since the human world of social relations is merely an element of total nature, it follows the same internal logic. This was Marx’s great innovation. Taking Hegel’s ‘idealistic’ theory of societal development – a theory in which conflicting ideas form the motor of human progress – he suggested that it was material conditions and social relations that drive society forward. Ideas reflect material conditions, not the other way around.

Since what happens in the past will affect the present and what happens in the present will affect the future, all phenomena – mental and physical – will contain trace elements of previous states and ‘clues’ as to their future ones – a fact that is as true for ideology as it is for water molecules in transition from one state to another. And since all ideological formulations depend on what they exclude or suppress, it falls to the radical dialectician to uncover the anomaly, the incongruous detail, that, when approached and analysed, begins to undermine the dominant belief system.

All of this would seem very crude to Žižek, whose notion of ‘absolute recoil’ entails a twist on the (already twisty) concept of dialectical materialism, one that reads a highly individualised version of Hegel back into Marx. But his general point can be simply stated. It is that twentieth-century communism was bound to end in catastrophe because it was a fantasy generated by capitalism itself, a ‘utopian’ version of what is wrong with it. The solution, for Žižek, is not to reject communism, but to repeat the revolution – endlessly.

And it is here, comrades, that we run in to trouble. For it isn’t enough for Žižek to note that since the problems we face can be usefully defined as problems facing ‘the commons’ (humanity), a social, or ‘communal’, solution will be needed. He has to lard his analysis with a lot of titillating piffle about the need for a ‘Master’ figure able to ‘actualise’ the potential ‘immanent’ to our current historical situation, as well as a lot of casuistic stuff about the nature and uses of violence and terror. As with Žižek’s previous books, one is left with the image, not of coffee without cream, but of a lot of broken eggs without an omelette.

Žižek can be a great philosopher, and in a world where the absence of a viable alternative to capitalism is keenly felt he can even be a necessary one. But when he writes that communism is the ‘only horizon’ from which to analyse the world today, he should be very clear what he means, and also what he doesn’t mean. In short, the clowning has to stop.

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First published in The Weekend Australian.