Thursday, February 18, 2010

"It's Ideology, Stupid!"

That's the title of the first half of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, and it also conveniently summarizes the main purpose of Žižek's entire intellectual project: subjecting the dominant ideology of liberal capitalist society to wide-ranging criticism. By ideology, Žižek does not simply mean the ideas or beliefs held by specific individuals or groups of individuals. In the Marxist framework in which Žižek operates, ideology is the "common sense" of a society that serves to justify the interests and power of its dominant group(s). It is the shared set of often unquestioned assumptions about the way the world is supposed to work that gives a social system popular legitimacy by conditioning subordinate groups to freely accept their inferior position as natural. As such, ideology attains a status similar to our knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow morning - it is simply taken for granted and seems beyond question. Žižek gets at this paradox on page 39:

"On account of its all-pervasiveness, ideology appears as its own opposite, as non-ideology, as the core of our human identity underneath all the ideological labels."

For Žižek, the political figure that embodies the nature of ideology today is Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister and media mogul who is probably more well known for his many tawdry scandals than his political accomplishments. On page 50, he writes:

Oriana Fallaci (who was otherwise rather sympathetic to Berlusconi), once wrote: "True power does not need arrogance, a long beard, and a barking voice. True power strangles you with silk ribbons, charm, and intelligence." In order to understand Berlusconi, one has only to add to this series a talent for stupid self-mockery.

We're about to head deep into Žižek-land with his somewhat bewildering comparison of Berlusconi to the animated film Kung Fu Panda, so bear with me here:

Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon film hit, provides the basic coordinates of the functioning of contemporary ideology. The fat panda bear dreams of becoming a sacred Kung Fu warrior, and when, through blind chance (beneath which, of course, lurks the hand of Destiny), he is chosen to be the hero to save his city, he succeeds...However, throughout the film, this pseudo-oriental spiritualism is constantly being undermined by a vulgar-cynical sense of humor. The surprise is how this continuous self-mockery in no way impedes on the efficiency of the oriental spiritualism - the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. Similarly with one of my favorite anecdotes regarding Niels Bohr: surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr's country house, the fellow scientist visiting him exclaimed that he did not share the superstitious belief regarding horseshoes keeping evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr snapped back: "I don't believe in it either. I have it there because I was told that it works even when one doesn't believe in it at all." This is indeed how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corrupted nature, but we participate in them, we display our belief in them. This is why Berlusconi is ou own big Kung Fu Panda. Perhaps the old Marx brothers quip, "This man looks like a corrupt idiot and acts like one, but this should not deceive you - he is a corrupt idiot," here stumbles upon its limit: while Berlusconi is what he appears to be, this appearance nonetheless remains deceptive.

If one accepts Žižek's critique of politics under contemporary capitalism, then you're led to the conclusion that it has all become something like a Japanese kabuki dance. The proceedings are highly stylized and and imbued with high drama for the purposes of media consumption, but we all know from the start how things will end. But this begs an important question: if we all know that the show is rigged, then why doesn't anyone seem to want to get up and leave the theater? What do you make of Žižek's critique of contemporary ideology?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Žižek on the big picture and the bailouts

Before delving into the specifics of Žižek's argument, it's worth summarizing his analysis of the broad contours of the contemporary world and where he thinks it's going.

For Žižek, the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks and the ongoing financial crisis that began in 2008 are signs that the liberal-democratic capitalist order thought to be eternal after the fall of the Soviet empire is slowly making its exit from the stage of history. This development, however, should not necessarily be interpreted as a positive development for the anti-capitalist left. The left itself will be the main victim of the crisis, as it has been exposed as incapable of presenting an alternative to the system in a moment in which it was highly vulnerable to a serious challenge. Instead, something like Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine will prevail, and the system will become stronger than ever while morphing gradually but unmistakably toward a form that combines China’s capitalist authoritarianism, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s mediagenic populist buffoonery, and officially sanctioned libertarianism in private matters. Politics will be hollowed out and rendered meaningless. If we have any hope of avoiding such a bleak fate, we must drastically alter the ideological background of society so that the spirit that animated the emancipatory movements of the past can be revived in a new form suitable to the conditions of 21st century life. Considering the magnitude of the problems we face, if we fail to do so the train of history will drive us all off a cliff.

What do you make of this analysis? Is Žižek more or less on the mark, and if not, where does he go wrong?

Now that we have a better understanding of Žižek's ideological position, let's consider his analysis of the Obama administration's Wall Street bailout. Considering the fact that Žižek is a man of the radical left, his critical support of some sort of bailout might be a bit surprising. On pages 13 through 17, he differentiates himself from populists on both the left and the right who share a tendency to view the problems of capitalism itself as primarily financial in origin and try to separate the "real" economy (i.e. manufacturing and other tangible activities) from the supposedly parasitical and non-productive financial sector. According to Žižek, this supposedly radical stance misunderstands the nature of capitalism and is politically counterproductive:

But what if "moral hazard" is inscribed into the very structure of capitalism? That is to say, there is no way to separate the two: in the capitalist system, welfare on Main Street depends on a thriving Wall Street. So, while Republican populists who resist the bailout are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, the proponents of the bailout are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. To put it in more sophisiticated terms, the relationship is non-transitive: while what is good for Wall Street is not necessarily good for Main Street, Main Street cannot thrive if Wall Street is feeling sickly, and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantange to Wall Street...The paradox of capitalism is that you cannot throw out the dirty water of financial speculation while keeping the healthy baby of real economy. It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defense of the rich. The problem is that, insofar as we remain in a capitalist order, there is a truth within it: namely, that kicking at Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers...When we are transfixed by events such as the bailout plan, we should bear in mind that since this is actually a form a blackmail we must resist the populist temptation to act out our anger and thus wound ourselves. Instead of such impotent acting out, we should control our fury and transform it into an icy determination to think - to think things through in a really radical way, and to ask what kind of a society it is that renders such blackmail possible.

Does Žižek have a point here, or is this little more than radical-sounding sophistry that actually encourages political passivity? If you disagree with him, what counterargument would you make to Žižek? Was there justification for some sort of Wall Street bailout, or should it have been completely rejected?

Monday, February 1, 2010

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Žižek

In recent years, Slavoj Žižek (pronounced SLAH-voy zhee-ZHEK) has emerged as the most famous (or infamous, depending on one’s view) of Continental European philosophers. Hailing from the tiny former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia, Žižek combines Marxism, the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, and the ideas of the great 19th century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel to analyze political theory and history, films, popular culture, theology, and almost any other field one can think of. The results are provocative, frustrating, hilarious, opaque, and brilliant, often at the same time. Whatever one thinks of the man’s ideas, they address many of the central questions of our time. They are worth grappling with.

Over the next two months, we will be discussing Žižek’s latest book, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. The book is rather short but ranges widely across a number of different fields. As such, it is difficult to encapsulate it in a sentence or two. So to give you an idea of what the book is about, let’s listen to what the book’s publisher has to say:

In this bravura analysis of the current global crisis following on from his bestselling Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Zizek argues that the liberal idea of the “end of history,” declared by Francis Fukuyama during the 1990s, has had to die twice. After the collapse of the liberal-democratic political utopia, on the morning of 9/11, came the collapse of the economic utopia of global market capitalism at the end of 2008.

Marx argued that history repeats itself “occuring first as tragedy, the second time as farce” and Žižek, following Herbert Marcuse, notes here that the repetition as farce can be even more terrifying than the original tragedy. The financial meltdown signals that the fantasy of globalization is over and as millions are put out of work it has become impossible to ignore the irrationality of global capitalism. Just a few months before the crash, the world’s priorities seemed to be global warming, AIDS, and access to medicine, food and water — tasks labelled as urgent, but with any real action repeatedly postponed.

Now, after the financial implosion, the urgent need to act seems to have become unconditional — with the result that undreamt of quantities of cash were immediately found and then poured into the financial sector without any regard for the old priorities. Do we need further proof, Žižek asks, that Capital is the Real of our lives: the Real whose demands are more absolute than even the most pressing problems of our natural and social world?
That’s all in the book, but it’s kind of like saying Moby Dick is just a story about a guy chasing a whale. Besides the economic crisis, Žižek takes on the state of the Left, popular film, Barack Obama and the debate over healthcare reform, ecology, communism, and a number of other subjects. We’ll try to cover as many of them as possible in the coming weeks.

While you wait to obtain your copy of the book (place your holds here) , begin to familiarize yourself with Zizek’s perspective by checking out the following links:

Žižek in the New Statesman: “I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it.”

Interview with Slavoj Žižek – full transcript

20 Years of Collapse - New York Times editorial on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

Žižek's homepage