End Times with Slavoj Žižek


Slavoj Žižek.  Living in the End Times.  Verso, 2010.

Reading Žižek has always been as challenging as it is enjoyable, an experience of pleasure and pain that seems at times an intellectual correlate to the operation of objet petit a (little object a).  The concept of objet petit a has been a constant in Žižek’s work, appearing in his trailblazing The Sublime Object of Ideology in 1989, and turning up again in the final chapter of his latest book.  In its role as a mask and a compensation for the ontological void, the profound sense of incompleteness that lies at the core of our subjectivity, objet petit a is inseparable from the sense of loss and metaphysical pain that gives rise to it but it is equally inseparable from the pleasure that accompanies its presence in our life.  The result is enjoyment plus pain and, as Žižek puts it in The Plague of Fantasies, ‘like the castrato’s voice, the objet petit a — the surplus enjoyment — arises at the very place of castration’.  Without wishing to suggest that reading Žižek is as discomforting an experience as this quotation might imply, there is a compelling pleasure to reading his next book despite, or maybe because of, the difficulties it is inevitably likely to produce.

Living in the End Times is no exception in this regard but Žižek’s latest offering does confirm a shift of emphasis on his part, one that first became apparent with the publication of Violence in 2008.  With his earlier work, before Violence, the reader has always faced the difficulty of grappling with the Lacanian concepts that Žižek is seeking to unpack and apply.

Terms like jouissance, the Real, the Thing, après-coup or the difference between desire and drive are not familiar to most readers and turning to Lacan’s writings for an explanation does not provide an easy-to-comprehend solution.  Hegel’s dialectic might seem more familiar territory — after all, we have all heard of the term and bring varying levels of understanding to its use — but Žižek is informing us that the traditional interpretation of Hegel is seriously mistaken and so we are driven to unlearning what we thought we knew before embarking on Žižek’s reading.  When Lacanian and Hegelian ideas are densely interwoven, with a measure of Kant or other selected thinkers usually thrown into the mix, the result can be a giddying combination of exhilaration and perplexity, an addictive high-speed chase with bewildering changes in terrain that for the reader necessitate multiple gear shifts, sudden U-turns, three- and four-point turns, elegant loops and impossibly narrow angles to negotiate.  And, in the midst of all this, the monster of the Real rearing up in frightening proximity.

With Violence Žižek focused in a more sober way on political theory and its application to contemporary life and this concern with political analysis informs much of Living in the End Times.  The first pages look at the ideological obfuscations behind the proposed banning of the burqa in France, having a dig along the way at Michael Palin’s travelogues for the BBC, and Gandhi and the Untouchables.  Žižek’s object of criticism is the liberal ideal, the mistaken belief that we can live without big ideas and survive merely with mechanisms for balancing a free market with free if egotistic people.  It is based on a dismal view of human nature, seeking the lesser evil, and ultimately relies on the imposition of a big idea, liberalism itself, in the guise of believing that no such overriding ideas are necessary or desirable.  Interlude 1, separating chapters one and two, probes the ideology of The Dark Knight, the two versions of 3.10 to Yuma and offers a lovely analysis of Kung Fu Panda.

The second chapter covers diverse ground: the way ‘what if’ histories are currently monopolized by right-wing academics when in fact such an ‘open’ understanding of history is essential to Marxism; the popularity of TV programs about the animal kingdom that project a wished-for, coherent world where even death make sense; the nature of political love, not the bogus compassion of Oriental-style wisdom but the revolutionary love that Che Guevara proclaimed, the intolerant, impossible love of Christianity that Paul called for.  His ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ being a call to abolish the mentality that accepts the status quo and build instead something new on groundless foundations.  This apocalyptic millenarianism is read as authentic communism: a new order of equality arising from the suspension of the existing network and our constituted roles within it.  An example of this is found in John Ford’s The Searchers: Ethan’s puzzlement at the precise moment when he is able to carry out his racism-driven mission to save (by killing) the girl who had been captured by and lived with the Indians.  It is not that Ethan discovers his innate goodness — the typical humanist reading of this scene — but rather his subjective destitution, a disengagement whereby he sees himself as a Neighbour (the neighbour embodies the monstrous, the inhuman, an order of our being that pertains to the Real) and not a part of the community to which he thought he belonged.

It is this ‘out of place’ space that should be the basis for political action, a starting point not to be confused with liberal sympathy for the excluded (which emanates from those who feel they are not excluded) but issuing instead from an excess of unconditional allegiance with the excluded.  Žižek finds a parallel for this movement in the Christian’s turning of the other cheek and it forms a part of his unorthodox and gloriously impious account of Christian emancipatory violence.  There is a theological kernel to secular atheism, as opposed to the religion of capitalism and its faith in money, that Žižek returns to in the conclusion to Living in the End Times.

For Žižek anti-Semitism has always been the prime example of ideology at work in the unconscious and he returns to the topic in Interlude 2.  Why, it is asked, does anti-Semitism persist?  It is not enough to refer to Israel’s policies because there is also Zionist anti-Semitism directed at ‘rootless’ Jews who don’t subscribe to Israel’s policies: they too are the ‘part of nopart’ upon which a true universality should be constructed.  Žižek goes on to look at how Israel is systematically colonizing the West Bank and Jerusalem, relying on peace talks to fail or stall in the interim.  China, Haiti and Congo are then looked at in terms of how their identities are being shaped by capitalist forces.  Ireland is discussed over three pages; its “No” in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the reaction to it by Europe’s political elite illustrating the contradictions at work in liberal democracy.

Chapter three, a sustained defence of Marx, is the theoretical heart of the book and it allows the reader respite from Žižek’s rapid-fire forays into diverse territories and the time to appreciate what underpins his central claim that global capitalism is fast approaching a terminal crisis.  Disagreeing with Badiou, Žižek seeks a return to the economy and the rule of capital as the kernel of Marx and historical materialism.  Badiou rejects the traditional orthodoxy, the Marxist grand narrative, that views the working class as the revolutionary agent of change inscribed into social reality but Žižek — and this is the radicalism that distinguishes his work —  rejects the whole notion of social reality as any kind of positive order.  The early Marx is ahistorical in simply stressing the role of human labour in creating material reality but in Capital his concern is the analysis of political economy, the commodity and its structuring role: ‘A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical  subtleties and theological niceties’ (Capital Volume One).  Lacan, until now mostly and surprisingly absent from Living in the End Times, makes an entry by way of the homology in logical form between Marx’s account of the three functions of money (a measure of value, means of circulation and actual money) and the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real triad.

Exchange value has labour at its source and labour produces a value that is greater than the price paid for the labour that produces the commodity.  At base, this is what creates the value of a commodity, not some intrinsic quality, some essence, but its appearance in the market.  Its logic is what creates monopolies, requires unemployment (to keep labour costs down) and sustains capitalism’s insatiable appetite and limitless self-expansion.  It also creates periodic crises and the antinomy of seemingly free individuals at the mercy of ‘objective’ market necessities.  Like Hegel’s Absolute — which, crucially for  Žižek, is not some end point of self-identity — the drive of capital, now more than ever the Real of our lives, has no end and relentlessly seeks to resolve its inherent antagonism.  Class struggle is not a rhetorical call to action but the antagonism and contradiction within capitalism:

Marx reasserts the primacy of Thought: the owl of Minerva (German contemplative philosophy) should be replaced by the crowing of the Gallic rooster (French revolutionary thought) announcing the proletarian revolution.  (p. 226)

Communism has to be constantly reinvented so that, for example, the ecological crisis is seen as one form of proletarianization, depriving us of the natural substance that makes us human, condemning us to global warming rather than ‘dark, satanic mills’.

Interlude 3 opens new ground for Žižek with an excursion into contemporary architecture before chapter four gets underway with capitalism in India and China.  Soon, though, he has returned to Marx and psychoanalysis, by way of Catherine Malabou’s Les nouveaux blessés, explaining how and why we are the new proletariat, a class destined (though strictly in the après-coup sense that Žižek gives to destiny and fate) to emancipate itself.  Interlude 4 brings us the Žižek we know and love, bringing together the case of Josef Fritzl in Austria and The Sound of Music and identifying the lack of civility in some of what passes for modern art as part of the moral vacuum that threatens our survival.

Different types of readers have problems with Žižek, his style as much as the content, for different types of reasons.  Focusing on either the style or the content misses the point because they are related in the same way as the form of theTractatus is inseparable from what Wittgenstein is saying in it.  Similarly, Žižek expresses his ideas in a form that may seem wilfully bewildering.  In a conventional text, one often expects to find at the start of a chapter a modest statement of some form of a hypothesis or a statement of intent, followed by a reference to alternative accounts by other critics or an overview of the relevant material, before the development of a new or revised interpretation by way of orderly inference and consecutive arguments.  A chapter in a book by Žižek is more likely to begin abruptly, in medias res, often by way of an assertive or surprising statement before spiralling away into examples designed to show that something is not what it seems to be but, more likely, quite the opposite.  Living in the End Times draws to an end in this way, refusing to deliver pat conclusions because there aren’t any, refusing to say what is to be done — do nothing, engage in revolutionary struggle, intervene pragmatically in situations? — because thinking that a pre-emptive choice has to be made is part of the problem and there are no quick-fit solutions and there is no manual instructing us how to get out of the mess.  At the end of his book, Žižek takes us back to objet petit a.  Why do otherwise intelligent people carry on supporting the way things are, rationalizing why they still obey and continue with jobs that perpetuate the system?  Objet petit a underpins power because people obey not out of physical coercion (liberal democracy is only successful when force is not required) but from their unconscious investment in maintaining the status quo.  It is the objet a, the surplus-enjoyment that secures the subject’s libidinal complicity, and it requires a complicated mix of Marx, Hegel and Lacan to understand and to change the end times we are living in.

Žižek has recently said that he has written 700 pages of his next book, on Hegel.  Bring it on.  Lenin withdrew and turned to Hegel when, shocked by the way the Social Democrats in Germany, the largest and most important socialist party in the world, unanimously supported hostilities in World War I.  We don’t have to turn very far to find home-grown versions of this ability to abandon principles and embrace those who rule.

This review was first published in Irish Left Review on 7 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

| Print