Wednesday, November 18, 2009

First as Tragedy, then as Farce

Slavoj Zizek's new book (Verso, 2009) examines the current world financial crisis and attempts to delineate a coherent Leftist response. The book is relatively accessible, and readers frustrated by his unruly and largely redundant previous effort In Defense of Lost Causes will find Zizek back in top critical form.

The current crisis is read in light of a comment of Marx's, to the effect that historical events must occur twice: first as tragedy, then as farce. September 11, 2001 (treated previously by Zizek in the engaging Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Verso 2002) was the tragic moment showing the naive utopianism of the Fukuyamean/Clintonite "happy 90's"; the bailout of banks and manufacturers by Congress is its farcical repitition (farcical because, among other things, it answers this naive utopianism with the spectacle of failed millionaires being put on a kind of welfare). As always, Zizek zeroes in on the counter-intuitive features of his historical conjuncture - the populist Right is after the wrong targets, the liberal Left is shoring up the big companies - with a view to unmasking their ideological core.

The second half of the book concerns the "communist hypothesis" (Badiou's term) in the present conjuncture. The communist hypothesis, discussed by Badiou in recent texts, is the hypothesis that communism is the right political solution (accepting, of course, that attempts to work it out have hitherto failed). Zizek bets on this hypothesis; he emphasizes however that whereas both Actually Existing Socialism and contemporary liberal capitalism belie an utopian core, his communism is not guilty of a happy Hegelianism that would count history on its side. Rather, Zizek maintains that the Left should assume a coming social / environmental / biogenetic catastrophe, and work backwards to how it might have been stopped. In short, Zizek sees the task of the Left as stopping history in its tracks by communist means and for communist aims. One sees again his affinity for Lenin, who it will be recalled was a voluntarist, strategic reader of Hegel.

Some of the prescriptive vagueness of In Defense of Lost Causes is repeated here, but I believe that Zizek gives the outline of what could prove a compelling philosophical argument for a communist response. He lives up to his reputation for weaving philosophy, pop culture, politics and psychoanalysis into an engaging whole; ultimately, however, the philosophical meat of his arguments is to be sought in earlier texts (now on Verso as "The Essential Zizek").

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