First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Žižek
Nicholas Lezard: Something rotten in society? Time to revive communism
[reposted from The Guardian]
I remember when, in this paper's excellent Weekend magazine's Q & A, Slavoj Žižek was asked to "tell us a secret", he replied: "Communism will win." I don't think anyone familiar with Žižek's writings will think he was joking, but just in case you thought the matter needed clarification, here it is, in book form. We know something is rotten with society, as the financial crisis shows, but what to do with it? The answer, he says at the close of his book, is simple: revive communism.
Žižek makes a plea to disillusioned communists: "Do not be afraid, join us, come back! You've had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it – time to get serious again!" (Those exclamation marks do undermine the notion of "seriousness", it has to be said.)
Reading Žižek is hard work. But it is worth it; like hacking through miles of undergrowth and jungle vegetation in order to be rewarded, every so often, with a splendid view. Here's some of the undergrowth (the ellipsis is Žižek's), coming after a rather taxing quote from the Italian radical philosopher Toni Negri: "What we find here is the standard post-Hegelian matrix of the productive flux which is always in excess with regard to the structural totality which tries to subdue and control it . . . But what if, in a parallax shift, we perceive the capitalist network itself as the true excess over the flow of the productive multitude?" Yes indeed – what then?
I am perhaps not the best person, then, to explicate Žižek, for there are times when I simply do not understand what he is saying. (He would doubtless call me an idiot, a word he is fond of using, applying it liberally, if not so much in this book.) His two intellectual mentors are Hegel and Lacan – and I have also had my problems with them, which is not, of course, to imply that either they or Žižek are charlatans. But one does sometimes yearn for a move away from impenetrability.
For when Žižek stops talking like that and actually says something directly, then he is electrifying. It is, I suggest, this tendency, and this one alone, that accounts for his popularity and presence; it's certainly why I'm recommending his book this week. Never mind the audacity or novelty value of his pro-communist proclamations, revel in the way he can zero in on the absurdities and contradictions of the modern world. His frame of reference may include Lacan and Hegel, but it also takes in dumb Hollywood films, stuff he's noticed on the telly, the kind of bullshit PR companies burp out. He quotes the information sheet from a New York hotel: "Dear Guest! To guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200."
"The beauty of this formulation, taken literally," purrs Žižek, "is that you are to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy your stay." This is the Žižek I like, the one who lets the system show us how stupid and cynical it is. You really feel he is on to something. The malaise and meaninglessness of contemporary democracy – in what sense, we may ask, are we living in a democracy? – is something that has to be addressed, and addressed bravely. Pausing to take a brief, horrified look at Berlusconi (for "Italy today is effectively a kind of experimental laboratory of our future"), he notes that "his democracy is a democracy of those who, as it were, win by default, who rule through cynical demoralisation". Well, there's a lot of it about. On the other hand, he notes the worldwide delight that greeted Barack Obama's election, and views it sympathetically, even though making perhaps forgivably snide remarks about him from the left is becoming increasingly fashionable.
The bottom line about Žižek is that he is revolted by a world in which the world's poor starve while banks are handed trillions. You will have to run up from time to time against the concept of Greimasian semiotic squares, of which, if you are like me, you may be pitifully ignorant; but, unlike me, you don't have to read every word. There is enough in here to keep you going.