Play it again Slavoj

Welcome to the desert of the real

Slavoj Žižek


Against the backdrops of 9/11, the mounting Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and the current crisis of the Left, Slavoj Zizek improvises a series of philosophical speculations. His unique blend of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian philosophy and intuition-defying logic – all spread over a staggering array of cultural references – has virtually come to hallmark a new style of critical thought. Welcome to the desert of the real is a good case in point. It cuts its wit with an acerbic brand of critique – particularly so in connection with what Zizek takes to be the contemporary Left’s inability to muster any real politics of action or change. Like much of his previous work, the text has a sense of the manic, a sense of Zizek thinking out a loud, at a dizzying pace. And whilst Zizek himself deserves critical commentary – the Left of which he is so critical, the concern with texts above political actions, the deconstructionist ethos that he so takes to task, does in some ways characterize his own writing – his florid theoretical speculations do ultimately yield genuinely critical insights. The idea of a kind of ideological censorship as endemic to liberal democracy is asserted in his bald claim that “we feel free because we lack the language to articulate our unfreedom” (p. 2). Here, as elsewhere, a fascination with the endlessly elaborate structure of ideological experience makes for a recurring motif of Zizek’s writing.Zizek is more dryly, and perhaps also more successfully cynical than we are accustomed to within the realm of political discourse. He is dogmatic, for example, although articulately so, that the current ‘liberal democratic consensus’ of the Western world – the situation of a ‘post-politics’ as he later refers to it – allows for only nominal deviation between options. The choice, offered us by the ‘war in terror’ between ‘democracy’ or ‘fundamentalism’, for example, is not a choice at all, especially if the only posed alternative to the latter is the US’s liberal democracy. These terms, claims Zizek , are perhaps far less separate than they first appear. Global capitalism, he argues, is, in a very real sense ‘fundamentalist’. The US’s much vaunted concerns over human rights and global democracy – here seemingly recapitulating Chomsky – are by far secondary to its interests in oil reserves. Hence the situation where the ‘American way of life’ is best preserved by preserving undemocratic regimes in certain parts of the world, because, quite simply, a democratic awakening could well give rise to anti-American attitudes. In a more off-hand style yet: “Every feature attributed by the US to the threatening fundamentalist ‘other’, is already present within the heart of the USA” (p. 43).Complimenting the terms of this argument, Zizek suggests that the Taliban represents less a regression into ultra-fundamentalism, a deep traditionalist tendency, than it represents the outcome of a set of international politics, not the least of which was the support of the US itself. Similarly, in the case of Afghanistan, what we have is “far from…an ancient realm outside the scope of modernization” – to the contrary, “the very existence of Afghanistan is the result of the interplay of foreign powers” (p. 55). As a result, the only way to really grasp what happened on September 11, for Zizek , is by locating it within the context of the antagonisms of global capitalism, as the ‘inherent tension between capitalism and its own excess’. Simply put, the war against terrorism is not our struggle, “but a struggle internal to the capitalist universe” (p. 55).One of Zizek’s favoured polemical instruments is, as above, the collapsing of assumed binaries; hence his later assertion that the true opposition today is not between the First and Third Worlds, but between the whole of the First and Third Worlds (the “American global empire and its colonies” (p. 146) as he puts it). For Zizek , European modernity is not as easily assimilated to the American ‘multiculturalist global Empire’. It is precisely in view of this fact that he suggests that the real political and ideological catastrophe of 9/11 was that of Europe; the total lack of an autonomous European initiative to do anything but tow the American politico-ideological line. Debatable as this may be, Zizek’s extended point, that Europe should assemble itself as an autonomous force, as a counterpoint to the world supremacy of USA, has at least a pragmatic resonance (at least in as much as it suggests a limiting of the US’s global ascendancy). Here we find the theorist, for once, doing what theorists of this sort typically fail to, that is, combining his critical acumen with a concrete political directive. Varying his terms somewhat, but still on the topic of global politics, Zizek argues that line of division of contemporary politics is no longer between the Right and the Left, but rather between the global field of ‘moderate’ post-politics on the one hand, and extreme Right repoliticization on the other. This more than anything else, is the book’s real theme. And it is this apparent dilemma that leads Zizek to thinking through some worrying postulates. Liberal politics, he claims is the party of the Non-Event, the “liberal-democratic centre’s main function is to guarantee that nothing will really happen in politics”(p. 151). More cuttingly yet, the Left has been reduced to a ‘reactive force’, its central role is that of opposing the Right’s populist initiatives. It is against this that he poses a nostalgia for the Rightist ‘willingness to act’, to set the pace, to determine the problematic of the political struggle. More alarmingly yet – and here Zizek’s Leninist leanings come strongly to the fore – he wonders whether what we need is less “the Fascist with a human face” (an acerbic caricature of certain liberal politicians) than “the freedom fighter with an inhuman face?” (p. 82). Whilst stringent criticism of the Left may well now be in order – particularly in view of the recent upswing of US Republican support – one might be forgiven for thinking that even the smallest dose of fascism is a dose too much.

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