on 5 November 2009
There was once a time that the release of a new book from the 'Giant of Ljubliana' would be awaited with baited breath. It is perhaps a sign of Zizek's entry into the intellectual mainstream that his work is now regarded more as a literary window dressing than a genuine 'event'. I am pleased to say that this work is (or at least should be) a return to his provocative and relevant best.
For those who are unfamiliar with Zizek's thought, this is perhaps as good a place to enter his oeuvre as anywhere else. It gives a strong and readable introduction to his rhizomatic style of writing (and thought) and gives ample (although perhaps less sustained than in some of his other works) example of the inter-textuality he employs. It is also consistent with the central theses of his thought. In this, he is still as much of an heir to Hegel and Kant as he is Lacan and takes care to situate ideology as the central problem of 21st Century politics. As ever, Zizek writes about this in a way which assumes no prior knowledge, although encouraging and helping the reader to delve deeper into the folds of Lacanian and Marxian thought.
Those seasoned readers of Zizek who expect a rehash of his previous ideas, augmented with little more than new cultural data may be somewhat surprised. Where Zizek's recent works tended towards writing about new cultural phenomena in the context of his political project, this book is a fairly radical step in his political project, provoked by the best stimulant of philosophical creativity; events. Of particular interest will be the second part of the book, which acts as something of a manifesto for post-Fukuyaman communism, exaggerating the break with liberal universalism that he makes with his earlier work.
A political scientist by training, I was particularly struck by the articulate and provocative manner in which he argues for communism as the universality in which radical political action must participate. This forms a neat summary of a key area of discussion in contemporary critical theory and poststructuralist approaches to politics, productively intersecting recent debates about the nature of freedom, non-representational theories of politics and the relationship between molecular and molar structures of political potential (to name but three).
Some readers may be disappointed by the lack of substantive hypotheses contained within this book. It is however, much better to think of this book as an act of practical philosophy, acting in the liminal space between writing and production. If the purpose of this book is to provoke the reader, to provoke and produce a new revolutionary subject, then the book has a potential of success.
For some, 5 stars may be a little too much praise. The book itself is maybe a little too patchy to justify this score; it is certainly not 5-star material throughout. However, I have decided to give the book a score on the basis of its glorious highs, at the expense ignore some of its mediocre lows. After all, it is these crescendos of ideas that the reader will remember long after they have put down the book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Zizek or investigating political responses to the recent financial crises, in an academic context or otherwise. This is a timely return to form, provoked largely by the philosophical urgency of events. As Zizek himself has said, when asked the key to radical politics during a financial crisis; it's the political economy stupid!
on 14 July 2010
I came to this book with a degree of scepticism - along the lines of what can people like Zizek actually offer to the task of reconstructing left wing politics from the dismal fatalism that defines much of the demoralised project that once was the left. I came away deeply impressed with both Zizek's incisiveness and his capacity to be inspriring, even if, as previous reviewers have noted, he avoids directly adddressing the question of what people who want to change things should actually do.
The book is divided into two sections - the first addressing the question of ideology, and the second a concise restatement of how Communism needs to be and must be the banner of those who stand against the present order of things. The first chapter is impressive for the way he so accurately nails the ideology of neo-liberalism in all its poisonous pervasiveness. Like all really good critique, he makes the enemy both visible and ridiculous in its brutality. As previous reviewers have noted, he goes back to Hegel and Kant to develop his critique of contemporary neo-liberalism - this may be off-putting to some readers, and this book demands too high a degree of literacy for it ever to become really popular. Nonetheless the tonic of his argument about the way we are constantly interpolated by an essentially utopian vision of neoliberalism which at the same time repudiates all non-capitalist utopias is brilliant.
The second half of the book is equally powerful and simply restates the idea of Communism, almost as something immanent within capitalism, but at the same time as the set of ideas which really takes on and at the same time poses a genuine alternative to capitalist social relations.
Will this book actually become the touchstone for re-inspiring the campaigning activist movement we so desperately need at the moment? It is too early to say, but in the meanwhile, give this book a serious read.
on 25 October 2009
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.
on 8 April 2010
As other reviewers have pointed out, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce differs from the majority of Zizek's other work primarily for the fact it's extremely readable. As such, it's not a bad entry-point into the world of one of Slovenia's finest cultural critics. It's short and punchy, and the author's use of the cartoon film Kung Fu Panda to explain both the complexities of contemporary ideology and the continuing popularity of Silvio Berlusconi is a nice touch. But in terms of the actual argument, the book leaves a lot to be desired. Zizek is, as ever, excellent at diagnosing the symptoms of modern malaise, but the remedy he proposes seems, at best, highly optimistic. Still good fun, though; Uncle Slavoj is as provocative and entertaining as ever.
on 19 December 2013
I had not encounter Zizek before seeing him on TV a couple of months ago; as he was being described as a Marxist atheist with a keen interest in early Christianity I was intrigued. In the TV discussion I found him to be erudite, humorous, eclectic and strident in his views. So having had my appetite whetted I decided to read 'First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.'
I was not disappointed. The basic idea here is that the recent economic collapse in the world economy has not been used as an opportunity to remedy the ills of western society, rather the interested governments are looking simply to restore the status quo. Zizek sees in this a polarization whereby socialism will be reinvigorated but socialism will not go far enough and, as you may expect Zizek to contend, a new form of communism is required.
Zizek's narrative style is detailed, sometimes complex, but always compelling. You may not reach the same conclusions, but taking the journey with Zizek will be well worth the effort.
on 14 July 2010
I found this book riveting in that it seemed to answer so many questions concerning the viability of Communism. While Capitalism is shown up for the sham it is. I ended up underlining sentences on virtually every page. It rewards a second read too as some of his arguments take a while to sink in. He is succinct and to the point. I look forward to reading his next book.
on 11 February 2010
Now first things first: If you want a concise, detailed analysis of the horrors of the noughties and the present financial crisis- from the far left or from any perspective for that matter- it isn't here. It's as if Zizek has himself carefully learned the advertising sound bite techniques of the corporate system he so opposes, and in its title and preface, unashamedly applied it in order to grab people's attention.
That's admittedly a cheap shot, but one can't help [guiltily] wishing he'd applied the same maxim to its content,which too often reads as a stream of consciousness with twists and turns that are, frankly, largely impenetrable. Essentially what we get, is half a book trying to prove in ever decreasing circles that capitalism is indeed an ideology [although `it' believes and acts as though it's not], and the latter half as a communist manifesto for far left 'regeneration,' but which fails - unfortunately- to develop into a practical prescription.
Personally, I have now been around the block too many times to be impressed by semantics that may thrill political scientists and philosophy buffs, but are generally too convoluted and- as such- rendered meaningless to the wider public. His concept of capitalist ideology being an ideology precisely because it denies itself to be an ideology smacks too much of philosophical gymnastics to me, written more to impress fellow intellectuals partaking of university town chi-chi dinner parties, than a head on take of the mess the world is presently in. Basically, much of the first half [with some relapses in the second] amounts at times to philosophical arguments about how black the colour of white is. Clever, but one is put in mind of Reggie Perrin's boss CJ when he said: `Thinking? I didn't get to where I am today by thinking; thinking never got the washing up done.'
Zizek is not alone in this failing, but too many on the intellectual left forget that concise and clear thought does not necessarily mean dumbing down; within simplicity of expression can lay a wide audience and this is the sort of impact we need these days for the left to be effective again.
But onto detail: his antagonism towards socialism- who he sees as an enemy of communism- is unhelpful but not unexpected from his extremist political stand point. It's another example of what the Left has always been crippled by- an inherent obsession with arguing with itself, and eventually splintering through it. Zizek is doing this already, even before the whole left wing movement has found its feet and a coherent voice again, and perhaps, lies in the fact that his position on the extreme left is possibly closer to the extremes of corporate capitalism than he dare admit.
Zizek hits the target though a number of times. For example his integration of the differing concepts of circular and linear time into a political paradigm is intriguing, and the idea of the future being affected by standing back and assumed it has already happened as a worst case scenario, and then doing something about it in the present, is a terrific way of explaining the need for contemporary action and not falling into the trap of fatalism and/or navel-gazing.
His too brief thoughts on how China's Cultural Revolution laid the groundwork for its present success with authoritarian capitalism are fascinating, as is his take on what our position towards Islamo-Fascism should be. However there's just not enough of this erudite analysis and one can't help but wish more of the book had been focussed on issues like this, which he approaches in a truly stimulating fashion, rather than meandering around issues of the Haitian Revoltution.
But there again, why try to approach a concept and do it justice in a chapter when you can devote half a book to it? Zizek falls into this academic trap far too often; bearing that in mind, I think you can find a more easily understandable distillation of Zizeks's thoughts in a book like Mark Fisher's excellent Capitalist Realism.
Looking back at this review, I'm wondering if I've been too harsh, as there clearly is an important intellect at work here. However he cannot be let off the hook for languishing in far too much selfish brainstorming over so many pages, in such important times as these. This is no time for analyses that are so dense as to be impenetrable, or, for perhaps his greatest fault- sitting too much on the proverbial fence when it comes to describing viable courses of action.
So it's only really in the last thirty pages or so that Zizek hits his stride and postulates ideas based in reality and- dare I say it- starts to make sense. It would be churlish though to say this is the only part of the book worth reading; I have to admit the book is like some particularly complex piece of music that doesn't have any impact on the first few listens, then suddenly sinks in and although not making much immediate, apparent sense, still holds a strange, beguiling beauty.
One final comment- I've deducted a star for the books strange lack of one thing: passion. This is strange, considering the closing page's strident call for `revolutionary' communist action. Despite that, this is an often difficult if eventually rewarding read; just approach it with an eye to being. on quite a few occasions, quite unreasonably baffled by 'science' and a few contradictory conclusions.
on 28 May 2010
I must admit that I am not all that well acquainted with Zizek's work. However, I found this piece of polemic hugely enjoyable and convincing. Having recently read Anna Minton's excellent'Ground Control'and various other books on the privatisation of everyday life and the ecological impacts, I found that FATTAF tied everything together. I am now looking forward to his next release 'Living in the End Times' in which I hope he develops his antagonisms argument that is described in FATTAF.
on 28 November 2015
An interesting book, well written, interesting cover. Would read again.
on 12 June 2015
A good 'popular' book by Zizek. Wise, funny and stimulating.