Slavoj Žižek makes a radical case for honesty

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Living in the End Times By Slavoj Žižek Verso, 416 pages, $37.50

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/07/2010 (4531 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Living in the End Times
By Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 416 pages, $37.50

‘The price we usually pay for survival is our lives.”

This is how Slavoj Žižek, one of the pre-eminent cultural critics alive today, introduces us to what he calls the terminal crisis of global capitalism.

Slavoj Žižek

Because we live in a state of “fetishistic disavowal,” we risk everything: we know we are headed for destruction but cannot bring ourselves to believe that this apocalypse will occur. Žižek enjoins his readers to see and think and act differently.

Žižek has written more than 30 books and is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.
Living in the End Times is a critical study of ideology, drawing on the thanatological themes of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It offers a trip through popular culture and our global political landscape, with short aphoristic essays on everything from Confucius and St. Paul to Stalinism and anti-Semitism.

Many aspects of Žižek’s work, owing a debt to thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Hegel and Lacan, will be inaccessible to those without a background in German Idealism and psychoanalysis.

Casual readers, if they can get past the self-interrupted thoughts and terminological density, will encounter a turbulent and truly original form of social theorizing.

Alongside his condemnation of global capitalism, Žižek claims that exclusion and violence are the “obscene supplements” of the liberal imagination.

He cites the liberal strategy of distinguishing between religions of peace and those that are militantly fundamentalist. He suggests that we should recognize that all religions are “stupid and inconsistent constructions,” but what makes a religion great is the political use to which it can be put.

Žižek commands an uncanny ability to relate sophisticated philosophical tenets to mundane and often vulgar commonplaces.
For instance, he illustrates the intricacies of Jacques Lacan’s objet petit a (object cause of desire) via the animated film Kung Fu Panda.

As might be expected from someone who writes equally about Kant and Hitchcock, Žižek has a taste for engaging in literary hoaxes (he regularly reviews films he has never seen).

Living in the End Times does not escape this flair for ruse. For example, in the chapter Architectural Parallax, Žižek speculates about a perceived “invisible frame” around modernist paintings that creates a utopian “interstitial space.”

What would that be? Interestingly the exact passage appears in his 2001 study of the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Fright of Real Tears. The original passage begins: “At an art round table, I was asked to comment on a painting I had seen there for the first time. I did not have any idea about it, so I engaged in a total bluff.”

The bluff is here expanded into an entire chapter. In a charitable reading, this stunt provokes the reader toward a more critical engagement. A less charitable view might hold that these shenanigans should disqualify Žižek’s work from serious consideration.

Such tricks should not detract from the seriousness of his position. Unless we transform our existing political economy, he argues, we will be active participants in the realization of the very worst of our nightmares, ecological catastrophe and an ongoing cold war, “literally fought in very cold conditions.”

Living in the End Times is a prophetic call for those concerned with the destructions we are visiting upon ourselves to seize power and overthrow the apocalyptic power of global capitalism.

Beyond the bluffs and Lacanian orthodoxy, the careful reader will detect that Žižek is also making a radical case for honesty ­— honesty about our enjoyment of the various catastrophes that are leading to humanity’s demise.

Kenneth MacKendrick teaches in the department of religion at the University of Manitoba and would like to see Slavoj Žižek host SNL.
 

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Updated on Sunday, June 5, 2016 9:59 PM CDT: Corrects typo.

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