Friday, March 20, 2015

Who's Žižoomin' Who?

Josh Cohen:

Where, in the standard reading of Hegel, one element comes into conflict with another external to it, in Žižek’s reading, conflict is internal or “immanent” to the first element. The resulting paradox is that an action becomes the result (rather than the cause) of its counteraction. To take the best-known example in Hegel, the master discovers that the slave is not his other but the condition of his status as master – that he is the master only by virtue of his dependence on (or enslavement to) the slave. The precariousness of the master’s identity lies in how he can be master only by virtue of not being master (as Arctic Monkeys put it in an album title, referencing Alan Sillitoe, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not).

The diagnosis of our inertia becomes the basis for a brutally unsentimental politics in which all voluntary commitments are mere ruses of ideology. Following the French philosopher Alain Badiou, his friend and interlocutor, Žižek insists on the revolutionary moment as an unpredictable “Event”. Change cannot be agitated by the active agent of traditional politics. On the contrary, “The change will be most radical if we do nothing.” The attempt to make things happen can only ever entrench the order it claims to be contesting, whereas by waiting passively we open ourselves to being swept up in an authentic event.

“Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” As though to affirm this aphorism, which ended his 2008 book Violence, Žižek takes pains to show how the renunciation of action authorises “Leninist” ruthlessness.

Žižek’s pronouncements on our political predicaments often seem animated by the same fantasies of making and unmaking the world with brazen unconcern for the consequences. Surely it is only in such a spirit of cartoonish indifference that a serious thinker could open a sentence with the phrase: “Even Nazi anti-Semitism . . .” Restoring the phrase to the full sentence does nothing to redeem it. “Even Nazi anti-Semitism, however ghastly it was, opened up a world: it described its critical situation by positing an enemy, which was ‘a Jewish conspiracy’; it named a goal and the means of achieving it.” This is in contrast to the corrosiveness of capitalism, which deprives “the large majority of people of any meaningful ‘cognitive mapping’”. In other words: yes, it may have been ghastly but at least with Nazi anti-Semitism you knew where you were.

I wish that this summary translation were mere flippancy but it is depressingly precise. The grim prospect of “non-eventful survival in a hedonist-utilitarian universe” licenses Žižek to prefer even the most catastrophic political experiment to our current set-up. As he writes: “Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state.”

Žižek’s contention in Trouble in Paradise is that our liberal-capitalist civilisation, for all its injunctions to enjoy ourselves, is devoid of genuine love and life. Yet there is nothing in Žižek’s brutal and peculiarly thin political vision to persuade his reader that life on the other side of capitalism, for which he lies impassively in wait, will be any more fun.