Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Slavoj Žižek, "Living in the End Times"


(Verso, 2010)

In light of the ongoing financial crisis and the oil hemmorhage in the gulf, I recently conversed with a close friend of mine about "living in the end times". Who other should pop up on my radar with a book by that very name than philosopher-superstar Slavoj Žižek! Needless to say, there is a fair bit more humour in the book than there was in the aforementioned conversation. Not to mention the ideas are bolder and the arguments more complex. Alas, If I had to rate Žižek's latest offering as an elementary school teacher would rate his pupil, I would say that Living in the End Times must apply itself; it should "straighten up and fly right", "spend more time on philosophy 1102 and less time on cultural gossip 1101", etc. In short: this is a mess of a book, but it could very well have been a major philosophical statement on our times. It contains some great ideas and instances of ideology critique in action, but these are scattered almost as if at random in the course of its ungainly 402 pages.

The book takes as its basic premise that the apocalypse is at the gates. The "four horsemen" of the present conjuncture are the environmental crisis, uncertainties surrounding new biotechnologies, the social-economic crisis, and burgeoning forms of apartheid. The argument (?) is loosely based around the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance. Each of these gets a chapter which loosely has to do with its title. These are accompanied by "interlude" chapters expanding on some of the ideas; in the case of the interlude on architecture, Žižek appears to be having fun while trying to tie things in to his bigger picture. The punchline of the invocation of Kübler-Ross is that "acceptance" here does not denote quietism in the face of the end. Rather, it speaks of a militant communist subjectivity stripped of its ideological baggage and prepared to run the doomed train of history off its rails. In the words of Mao: "There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent".

For my money, the best parts of the book are the section on China, Congo and Haiti, and the speculations towards the end as per the possible role of art and the artist in a communist society. Readers familiar with his works will find that Žižek does not offer too much of substance that is new here; this is especially frustrating given the vagueness of his political prescriptions as offered up in the recent In Defense of Lost Causes and First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.

I complain about Žižek, but the very things about which he frustrates me are the things that keep me coming back for more. I do enjoy a good cultural critique, especially one that's counterintuitive. I just can't shake the feeling every time I finish one of his books that I've been had.

3 comments:

Jason R. B. Smith said...

I am salivating to be had.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

Matt,
One of those course codes looks familiar. Did you mean to suggest that Zizek needed to spend more time on PHI 1102, Moral Reasoning? He'd just say- and rightly so, in most cases- that it's just a series of examples of hyphen-ethics.

Matthew R. McLennan said...

Hmm, that was unintentional!