Duncan Simpson reviews Slavoj Zizek, Living In The End Times (Verso 2010), 432pp.
The concluding words of Zizek’s First As Tragedy, Then as Farce were a call to those who have written off the communist idea to return and be reconciled: “to begin from the beginning“, and that now was the “time to get serious once again“.
That book, a concise reaction to and analysis of the financial situation since the start of the crisis was as close to a manifesto as Zizek has ever got.
Those concluding words inevitably led to much anticipation for this new larger work in the hope that Zizek would continue where he left off and provide the definitive word on our current social and political climate. Does it deliver? Well, yes and no.
Living in the End Times, like its predecessors Parallax View (2006) and In Defence of Lost Causes (2008), brings together Zizek’s thought over the preceding two year period.
He fires salvos of Marxist/Lacanian theory into everything from recent film releases (Avatar, The Dark Knight, Kung Fu Panda) to his continuing critique of identity politics, and (most controversially) an increasing concern for theological and particularly apocalyptic Christian millenarian thought.
For those who follow Zizek’s lectures on Youtube, or his regular publications on Lacan.com, a fair amount of the book will be familiar.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a wealth of new work here, much of which opens up new avenues of thought not just for Zizek but for the contemporary left.
The book is structured around its central premise: global capitalism is fast approaching its terminal crisis. The collective response to which mirrors the five stages of grief: ideological denial, explosions of anger, attempts at bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
Only once this process has reached an end point can we begin to see this crisis as an opportunity for a new beginning.
For those who accuse Zizek of too often shirking a direct political analysis in favour of cultural and psychoanalytic gymnastics, there is still plenty of opportunity for criticism.
The essay on Josef Fritzl pushes the boundaries of taste while continuing the psychoanalytic fascination with “primal father” figures. His foray into architecture in Chapter Three - his own knowledge of which, by his own admission, is limited to idiosyncratic data - produces some interesting results.
However the central claim that contemporary architecture has created both sterile false-utopian spaces, and, as a necessary by-product, “interstitial spaces” for possible adaptation to utopian ends, seems a little superficial.
While the appropriation of old rail arches into gallery spaces is a current trend (at least in the London area), such utopian projects are still subject to the usual pressures of private property, and legal and market concerns.
It is also noticeable how the majority of the archways around London Bridge and Waterloo stations have gone to large chain brands, corporate bars and other decidedly less utopian projects.
As much as the book packs in a bewildering array of insight and criticism from Haiti to 1968, it will be Zizek’s sustained engagement with Marx’s labour theory of value and commodity fetishism that will interest those who have in the past accused the author of an inconsistent use of Marxist ideas.
In the process he takes issue with Badiou on the ‘Idea of Communism’, defends Luk√°cs from accusations of objectivism, and critically analyses the work of Moishe Postone in a section provocatively titled In Defence of a Non-Marxist Marx.
Here he defends both the critique of political economy, and class struggle as the antagonism that cuts across social reality, exposing the objective limits of the commodity form.
All the while Zizek continues his central project of criticising and diagnosing our ideological predicament, but now it seems more than ever directed towards potential political consequences. As such the book contains comparatively little on Lacan.
Only during a critical treatment of Catherine Malabou’s Les Nouveaux Blesses does he focus predominantly on psychoanalytic concerns, developing the theme of the new proletarian as the post-traumatic subject, an individual reduced to the zero level, a kind of pure Cartesian cogito.
While the political conclusions the book reaches are for the most part familiar to readers of Zizek, never before has he framed them in such direct terms.
“The problem for emancipatory politics is how to reintroduce into this democratic field the radical antagonism (the difference which cuts into the social itself in its universality, which admits of no big Other, neither substantial nor formal) - and the solution is: “dictatorship of the proletariat.” “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right” - is this famous couplet for Hamlet (I, v) not a succinct description of the proletarian position? Are proletarians not the “out of joint” element in the social structure, “cursed” with the revolutionary task of setting things right? The “dictatorship of the proletariat” is ultimately indifferent towards formal democracy - what matters is not the mode of selection of the government, but the pressure exerted on it by the people’s mobilization and self-organisation” (p. 393)
This seemingly orthodox Marxist emancipatory position is combined throughout the book with an emphasis on Christian millenarianism and political love, so Zizek covers topics from Wagner to fundamentalism.
While the re-appropriation of Christianity’s ‘love thy neighbour’ away from its pacifist connotations to a more emancipatory use is admirable, the links Zizek makes between this theological/political love and Terror may not sit well with some.
Indeed the final lines of the book may lend weight to the argument that any such theological synthesis could cloud the attempts towards concrete political organisation:
“This is the kind of God needed by the radical Left today: a God who has fully “become a man,” a comrade amongst us, crucified together with two social outcasts, who not only “does not exist” but also knows this himself, accepts his own erasure, passing over entirely into the love that binds all members of the “Holy Ghost,” that is, of the Party or emancipatory collective” (p. 402)
It may be that Zizek’s more overt theological allusions are more metaphorical than metaphysical. Nonetheless, as always with Zizek, the sheer volume of sources and topics covered, and the extent to which he shifts between them, makes any definitive statement problematic.
Again we are left wanting that sustained analysis of his radical conclusions, again there are more questions and quotable material than systematicity.
There is also the issue of Zizek’s use of the idea of apocalypticism. One of Zizek’s best known sound-bytes of a few years ago was that today it was easier to imagine the end of the world rather than an end to capitalism.
That statement served to highlight the seeming totality of capitalist hegemony, but also indicated how thinking any possible alternative has become shrouded in ideological obfuscation.
Yet, now that Zizek seems to be reading the apocalypse and the end of capitalism together, this begs the question as to what happened to the critical position on apocalypticism?
Has the economic crisis served to make real what was before only ideology, or is it the impending ecological crisis? If it is the latter, then Zizek would seemed to have changed his position from when he claimed that ecology was the new opium of the masses.
Potential inconsistencies aside, Living in the End Times contains some of Zizek’s most serious and evocative writing while still maintaining fidelity to his engrossing and at times bewildering style.
It doesn’t give you all the answers but does leave you wondering if you were ever asking the right questions, and I suspect that’s the point.