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Slavoj Zizek - The Elvis of Marxism?
on 25 July 2010
More years ago than I care to remember I did a political philosophy course at University with a lecturer who would delight in spinning out names which sounded terribly glamorous and obscure. Many of these people seemed to reside in Paris while others seemed quite partial to Frankfurt. They included thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan. The trick with said lecturer was to try and find quotes from books by these "great men" and in turn quote them back at him in your coursework. The slight problem with this theory was that as it turned out much of the stuff that they wrote was unreadable bilge and fashionable nonsense. There wasn't a decent idea to be found and thankfully brighter thinkers and better writers like our own E P Thompson had the gumption to argue against this "poverty of theory". The whole deck of cards came crashing down when Monsieur Althusser decided to kill Madame Althusser by strangling her, while Lacan's works have since been described as an "incoherent system of pseudo-scientific gibberish," and the equally controversial Noam Chomsky described him as an "amusing charlatan". This may or may not be a useful description of Slavoj Zizek who works in the traditions of Mr Lacan albeit with a sense of humour. Some of you may have seen him recently on Newsnight with his manic arm movements, ill-fitting clothes, wayward hair, strange lisp and a mind that can draw upon anything from Marx to Mickey Mouse. He is by any standards that rare beast an entertaining Marxist and in his new book "Living in the end times" you will find his views on "Avatar", "Big Brother" and "Gonzo porn" sat next to impenetrable reflections on obscure heavyweights like Hegel and Alain Badiou
One of Zizek's best-known sound-bytes of a few years ago was that today it was easier to imagine the end of the world rather than an end to capitalism. In his new book "The end of times," he has however mustered a range of questions which whether you are on the right or the left require debate and most importantly require answering. The collapse of the global economy in the past three years, the rise of Market economies in Communist states, the impact of climate change, the rise of religious fundamentalism and in Zizek's case the key issue of film criticism!
He is often berated for his preoccupation with cultural and psychoanalytic gymnastics and his failure to get to grips with politics. There is no shortage of it in "Living in the End times" since Slavoj Zizek concentrates upon what he sees as the four horsemen of this coming apocalypse: the worldwide ecological crisis; imbalances within the economic system; the biogenetic revolution; and exploding social divisions and ruptures. This reviewer would be economical with the truth if I said that I devoured every page of this book since some of it is deeply unreadable and other bits come across like sections lifted from Private Eyes "pseuds corner". If truth be told the whole book is the political equivalent of a high-speed chase with moments of exhilaration combined with the brakes being slammed on while Zizek once again goes wandering off into to some baffling analysis of the post-Cartesian constellation, the cerebral unconscious or the impact of revolutionary love. Some of it is also fascinatingly useless and hilarious. Did you know that "Quantum of Solace" was the first film where Bond didn't have sex with the Bond Girl? Had you noticed the James Cameron's "Avator" was an exercise in "Hollywood Marxism" despite the fact that "idyllic portrait of the blue aborigines totally binds us to their own oppressive hierarchies"? Of course, you didn't.
People have asked whether Zizek is just a pretentious poser, an anti-Semitic left wing zealot or the rightful heir to Karl Marx? Whether he is a philosopher or fool what cannot be denied is that the central propositions in this book require examination. "No one asks the big questions" is his constant refrain, similarly we are "approaching a zero point, with a formula which does not work...and the welfare state dream has come to an end". The experience of the last period suggests that someone had better answer this critique since it was clear that we tottered on the edge of the abyss when Lehman's collapsed and the current sovereign debt crisis with countries verging on bankruptcy sees dangerous times ahead. To be fair to Zizek he is also an arch critic of former communist regimes but his argument is very weak on alternatives where again he lapses into to psychoanalytic thought and ends the book with a very lame joke. Zizek also tries unconvincingly to address the predicament of the deeply defeated progressives of today whose ideological confusion has been brilliantly captured by Nick Cohen in "What's left". Consequently, I think I can recommend "Living in the end times" or at least half of it. Perhaps it is worth checking out Zizek on the net before you buy since you find a thinker who is certainly hugely entertaining, thought provoking but completely maddening in equal parts.