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


Anonymous said...

Marx and Freud and Hegel are having a rennaissance or something. Great thinkers die hard. But they of course had no idea what the modern mass media could do to Homo sapiens in our times. A media-saturated culture has created a new breed of nationalistic narcissistic wannabees who are so self-absorbed, so obsessed with their own identifiations, so hell-bent on the creation of their own perverse sense of celebrity that they seek lime light, not light any more.

Humans, with a alwasy ready passion for consuming all things slippery, shinny and sensational (in the G-8 mostly) no longer aspire to acquire true knowledge, objective reason, and genuine self-awareness.

Freud knew about the delusions of grandeur. Self-aggrandizement is indeed being pandered to by an onslaught of advertisers in every media form, and the resulting delusion that we are always the center of the universe makes us into pseudo celebrities so that we have no room in our consciousness for evoloving more complex potentials such as compassion and reason.

Who knew that modernity will be nothing but competing to be the star in a world of lime-lighters, at the expense of rest of the world. One nations (American) dream is anothers nightmare.

Does Zizek mention media memes (me-me-s)as one of the causative factors in shaping mass modern psyche and soul.

Chris Maisano said...

Zizek is well aware of the power of the media, and he spends much of his time applying psychoanalytical critique to films and other forms of popular culture. He's actually, for lack of a better word, the host of a two and a half hour documentary on film called The Pervert's Guide to Cinema ( where he does just that. Unfortunately, BPL doesn't have it but I recommend it if you can get your hands on it.

Anonymous said...

"Seductions of capitalism keep the eye and brain off the Real," according to Zizek. I am wondering, why does he single out only capitalism. Don’t you think that any ideology, be it Communism or Capitalism, or Christianity or Islam, can do the same to the “free will” believing population propagated into such ideologies through the usually off the radar, institutional/cultural climate of specific memes and their close derivatives? All culture is a product of propagation of tribal particulars and their continuation. The enduring conflicts among major religious groups and nations of Homo sapiens is a testimony to the narcissistic attachments to the “texts and pretexts of the tribe,” or their direct and indirect derivatives, be it Bible, Quran or Bhagavad-Gita. As Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees notes: “Everybody needs a God who looks like them.” Semantic boundries of the tribe become the boundries of meaning and behavior. Humanity needs a meme changer--from tribal to universal.