The intellectual composting of the entire world continues with another Zizek release: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. This is what would probably be termed a "political intervention." Zizek has never shied away from politics, be it at home in Slovenia, or in the EU and America; indeed, embarrassingly to many of the commentariat, he often manages to churn out prescient journalism and reflections about subjects which local writers can only flail at. So it was with Thatcherism, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently Italian politics and the Iranian elections.
Like his other recent political "pamphlet," Violence, this latest book is a concise distillation of the various re-occurring themes in Zizek's work, but, unlike that book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is less bricolage, and may well be as close to a Zizekian manifesto as we will ever come -replete with self-references, cut-and-paste passages and even a footnote pointing us to Wikipedia. The book is broken into two sections, the first ostensibly re-asserts ideology as the pre-eminent problematic with which we are dealing, even though depression appears "economically determined". The second section picks up the theme Zizek has been debating over the last year: communist possibilities and revolutionary potential.
This books marks the end of any apologism for Zizek about communism, indeed, after several years of noting that the Left must embrace it's troubled past, Stalinist warts and all, we are here enjoined to end Leftist guilt once and for all. Zizek is sick of ruminating on purges and gulags. Instead it is the capitalists and their apologists who need to begin explaining themselves. He suggests the field of politics does not revolve around how communism appears to us here, at the end of history, but how our circumstances appear to the eternal idea of communism. This point, maintained similarly byAlain Badiou and Kojin Karatani among others, points us in the direction of once again asserting communism as the currently missing dynamic in global politics. Various thinkers have offered their input into quite what form this assertion takes: David Harvey wants us to join new social movements;Badiou advocates the self-organisation and the Jacobinism of French migrant groups; Karatani wants us to join local exchange trading schemes.
Zizek has been notably silent on his fellow's advocacies, and did bring upon himself Simon Critchley's riposte that he is a magician with a hat, but no rabbit. Here Zizek is clearly trying to give us what rabbit he can, but it is a diffuse one: we are told to drop historical determinations of communism, and do it afresh for our times, but we are also told the present needs a swift dose of Jacobin-Leninism. The part-of-no part is upheld as a site of communist solidarity, but note this is not the proletariat, it seems to be the "no-papers" as they call them in France: illegal migrants (plus slum dwellers and the dispossessed at large); however we can no longer afford to be "subversive" from the stance of the part-of-no-part because as has been well established, capital is its own subversion, and thrives thereon.
The question is thus a territorial one: quite literally where is the space from which to re-assert the communist ideal? As Zizek asks rather than answers, how to "subtract" ourselves from the situation in a way which at once gives space to think and act, which violently disturbs the existing order, and which shows the complicity of perceived opposites in that order?
Zizek drops the idea of socialism itself. He posits the future as a battle not between capitalism and socialism, but as one between socialism (or social-democracy, or China's social-authoritarian capitalism) and communism.
As a manifesto, Zizek's falls a little short. We have no list of demands; we have no advocacy of one thing or another, other than communism, which is apparently not actually an answer, but the name of the problem which must confront capitalism. Having said this, Zizek does tell us in part what to do:
He approvingly cites Ghandi's mantra: "be the change you wish to see in the world" (which coincidentally Oxfam has written on a fridge magnet). Zizek also promotes a mentalité which is argued to be key to action and thought: we must assume that the worst is our fate. We must think from the future as if the worst has come to pass, and consider what interventions we would make in order to change this fate; in this way, ironically, our free act to intervene in history must, argues Zizek, be premised precisely on our future circumscribed free will. This may sound a little strange, but its targets are clear: hopeful Fabian solutions (like Al Gore's to environmental disaster) and wild, impotent flails such as the anti-Iraq War protests back in 2002-2003 (which were then cited by Bush and Blair as examples of the freedom and democracy they were trying to spread).
Critchley will be unhappy to have no rabbit from Zizek's hat, but compared to his earlier writings we can at least glimpse a pair of ears. Whether defensible or not, Zizek has said for a long time that it is not up to philosophers to come up with answers; conveniently he is a politician when posing questions and a philosopher when asked for answers. But what could on the one hand be read, as it is by Critchley, as ultimately empty posturing, could be read on the other hand as a very trusting injunction: do as you please, but do it carefully and with thought. Zizek appears not to particularly be galvanising us into action, but to be galvanising us into thought. Zizek would probably not care if we joined a new social movement, began a LETS group, organised a protest or turned our house into a commune; what he would care about is that we thought it all through: that we looked at it from the future of a terrible fate and decided, yes, that is the intervention I must make.