Friday, February 06, 2015

Clouds in My Coffee

Richard King:

My only problem with this characterisation is that, in one sense at least, it has Zizek backwards. True, to the extent that Zizek is a Marxist, he seems perennially split between Groucho and Karl. But the mistake is to think 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 incisive, and his communism that is a joke in poor taste.

Jokes are central to Zizek’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 Zizek 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?

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 Zizek, 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 20th-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 Zizek, is not to reject communism but to repeat the revolution — endlessly.