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Customer reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars

on 17 October 2013
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I like Zizek, and I like this book. It is set out in the form of an interview, but the questions are very short, and the answers are a nice length - no more than a couple of pages or so each.

Zizek seems to delight in being provocative, and his bombastic wit and personality shines through here. His arguments are persuasive and range across a number of topics: the credit crunch, the arab spring, Chavez...

The central question here is one of 'the common good' and the Zizek considers how we can bring about social change for the better. He has some interesting solutions, and highlights the problems with other ideological approaches, such as environmentalism, which he sees as contradictory - if environmentalists are serious about saving the planet, he says, we should all live in one big dirty city, concentrating the negative effect of humanity on one spot instead of spreading our muck all across the world in little outcrops of pollution. This is a perfect example of Zizek's confrontational thinking and methods; methods which make for amusing and thought provoking reading.

Through all of this, the right balance is struck between complex ideas, accessible language and contemporary illustrations, making the book lucid and easy to read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 21 October 2013
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Salvoj Zizek is that rare phenomenon a hugely entertaining Marxist with a penchant for discussing Pixar alongside the Proletariat. Having previously reviewed his dense if fascinating "Living in the end times" he is a thinker with important things to say. Although you must be prepared to wade through some cultural and psychoanalytic gymnastics along the way some of which take patience testing to whole new realms. This newish book "Demanding the Impossible" is an altogether different beast. Essentially it is a series of longish answers to interview questions dealing with a wide range of subject matter, this includes North Korea, the rise of China, the Arab Spring and the decline of Western Europe. The book has advantages in that it is one of Zizek's easier reads, its disadvantages are that without the discipline of the pen and the page you sometimes wonder what question he is answering. The questions themselves are more overtly political than cultural although it wouldn't be Zizek if along the way we did not have Swedish police reports, Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and the chilling spectacle of Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry hill" thrown in for good measure. The other problem is that Zizek is reaching instant conclusions on fast moving events and thus his analysis of Egypt's potential following the resignation of Mubarak now seems rather rose tinted in light of recent history. Alternatively his analysis of the almost labour camp conditions for the foreign workers who build the skyscrapers and shopping malls in the shiny citadels of oil rich states like Qatar and actually far outnumber native Qatarisis is very well done. His warnings about the potential social impacts of this seem well founded and he predicts labour explosions to follow. Similarly his love of sweeping judgements are on proud display not least his characterisation of "20th Century communism as the biggest ethico-political fiasco in the history of humanity". With some 34 interviews in the book some will engage others will irritate. But that is par for the course in any Zizek book. Thus taken as a short introduction to his work "Demanding the impossible" does have merit.
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VINE VOICEon 5 December 2013
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In all the years after the fall of the communist governments in the USSR and elsewhere, when the political right was gloating and economic liberalism ran havoc, Slavoj Zizek was a lone voice, not heard by many. Now he is highly regarded as a philosopher and psychoanalyst. To me, his psychoanalysis is one of societies and cultures, which makes it political critique and/or philosophy.
This book, in which he is answering questions on his take on present political developments and the different cultures, is a good read. It presents his political views and his analysis in an accessible way. Not all his books are this accessible.
His effect on me is that I immediately start to think about what he presents and do my own analysis, enjoying his often surprising takes and his thorough way of investigating problems.
He talks about the developments of democracy and capitalism and the authoritarian governments in the Chinese/Singaporean style.
About technological and medical developments, biogenetic interventions and climate change.
What he says about religious fundamentalism I find especially interesting. He says that the rise of religious fundamentalism is strictly an effect of the retreat of the secular left. And: "With the global liberal system, we generated fundamentalism".
There is a dialectic in this, a good example of looking closely, investigating a situation and taking different parameters into account, a far cry from the primitive approach you see in most news media. Because of this I find it easy to agree when he points out the need for discussion. Dismissing simple solutions, he says: "So we need theories and philosophy more than ever".
He does not present simple solutions either. He is either too intelligent for that or has learned the hard way, possibly both.

Sometimes there are statements which are not clear, and they are not explained or logically deduced, like: "What I mean is very clear is that our very sense of identity - 'what are we?' - is based on this gap. This very gap between my thought and the world out there is the basic foundation of our sense of personal identity, where freedom is undermined." It is possible that he shortened something severely and that it could be found discussed in one of his works, but I can't accept this definition of personal identity, to me, it isn't "very clear" at all. I have a very different take on 'identity'. But again, here, he starts me thinking deeper about something.
Another example is his statement: "compulsion to identify". On the basis of what he says, I cannot work out what he means with "compulsion to identify": he talks about two extremes and the absurdity of the need to find a balance. "These two extremes already flow into each other. This is why synthesis does not affirm the identity of the extremes, but on the contrary, affirms their difference as such." so far, so good, but then he continues: "So the synthesis delivers difference from the 'compulsion to identify'. In other words, the immediate passage of an extreme into its opposite is precisely and index of our submission to the compulsion to identify." He's lost me there, I don't understand what he means by compulsion to identify.

A theme in various of the chapters is the 'commons', which I find very interesting. "...the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (intellectual property) and, last but not least, the problem of the commons as the universal space of humanity, from which no one should be excluded."
This is such a good basis for philosophical and political discussion. It is a foundation for people to find common ground for actions comparable to 'liberte, egalite, fraternite' of old.

I recommend this book to everyone concerned about how we live and the consequences thereof, and about taking responsibility.
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on 30 November 2013
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I have a lot of time for Zizek who is an exciting, energetic and impassioned thinker who delights in iconoclasm partly for its own sake, and partly for where it can take us. His New Left (in a European sense) arguments take issue with the state of the world as it is now, and advocate not new political institutions but novel ways of constructing and thinking about the world. So, at his best, Zizek can be thrilling and magnetic - but I'm not sure this book is the best show-case of his thinking.

Based on two days where Zizek talks to (perhaps, more accurately, at) a South Korean `progressive, humanist' group, this captures some of the eclecticism of the man, but in a soundbite, `chat-show' style format. The editor and interviewer is so clearly in awe of, and in thrall to, Zizek himself that he is left unchallenged, and is allowed to repeat himself and engage at a sometimes light level with his key points.

This is still worth reading for Zizek's exploratory, playful, sometimes radical and, ultimately, hopeful thinking as long as you don't expect depth, detail or a dense and reasoned thesis. I've seen Zizek speak in person and it's when he's challenged, confronted or opposed that he emerges at his most charismatic and intellectually dazzling.

So this is Zizek lite: good for undergraduates or a general readership, but it perhaps makes the man himself come over as more glib and less brilliant than he actually is.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 2 November 2013
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The most important thing about books like this one is not how well they read, but how well they increase your own political sense of the world, and how they can change your argument on vital *current* themes (which, incidentally, is why most of my Marxist books hit the bottom of the bin some years ago -the *current* part is long gone for most of them!).

So, let me take you through two of my big world views after reading this book. The first involves the concept of `Commons', which is arguably the most important leftist issue of the day. The second involves my view on education (and particularly how Michael Gove and the Tories want to change it). Both these arguments have been significantly reshaped by reading this book, and to my mind, are the best indication of how good (or otherwise) this book this is...


One of the most notable recent interviews (at least on social media) has been the Newsnight interview with Russell Brand. Although his spiel was high on emotive platitude and low on answers, he did touch on an argument that is the core of the politics of most alt-left wing people today: the concept of `commons'. Commons refers to the things that capitalism should not own, and should pay to put right when it gets broken. It refers to freedoms and privacy as well as the more obvious one - the environment. Brand's argument is flawed because the concept of `commons' is usually chosen on the basis of self-interest rather than the `greater good', and is actually just as damaging as capitalism itself...

I used to live in an idyllic village in rural Somerset. One of the farmers put in planning permission to turn his fields into a housing development. The villagers were up in arms about the ecological impact, and tried to force changes such as a village green (complete with duck pond no less!), but their biggest concern was the need for an element of social housing because `it would bring the area down'. Their idea of what the countryside should look like came from a 1950s biscuit tin lid.
Most ecological arguments are the same: self-interested. Why should nature stay the same when it loves change? The dinosaurs never played about with nature, but change still came. Better that we should actively engineer that change rather than leaving it to God and Dawkins. Things can never stay the same, so stop looking backwards.

Further, the ecological idyll of everyone living in small, self-sufficient and spaced out homes comes from a biscuit tin, whereas in reality this idyll would be an ecological disaster with no pristine landscape left. The alternative is population control. Population control done naturally and on the scale we would need is called `disease and starvation for the poorest'. No thanks.
Better for nature and the environment that our cities are busy, dirty and cramped centres, because then humans leave a larger part of the environment alone, and we are left to clean up our own mess rather than spread it out. But we don't want to do that, because, like Brand, our real philosophy is vaguely hedonistic with a hint of Buddhism (if we are leftist tree huggers) or with a hint of nihilism (if we are capitalists who know it's all going to end badly, but as long as the band keeps playing, happiness is sitting in the well off part of the hall).

Even in the digital sphere, we stick to the concept of `commons' when the concept just doesn't exist and never has. We are happy to take the free google mail or Facebook account, but then wonder why our data is harvested. It's because those things never existed as a 'common' before an entrepreneur made them available, and we confuse the lack of exchange of currency for 'free'. None of it was ever free and the currency in this case was information. The best way to have secure email or web presence is to simply pay for it, and it costs very little.

There is one `common' that Russell Brand and most people like him fail to address, and it is the most important one: responsibility. We all have a common responsibility, and it is not common - it is personal, and there to be used rather than offloaded.

Education and economic growth

One of the big issues that Gove and most of the centre right are concerned with today is creating `experts'. Experts, such as Engineers and Scientists and economic/medicine specialists are the people who really drive growth. According to Gove and his followers, we should shut down the Art and Philosophy departments as they do not give us those much needed experts-who-drive-economic-growth.

Experts don't create innovation and only address current problems. Engineers can make more efficient aircraft, but they are unable to ask why. They don't really care that the more efficient aircraft design they are developing is a new bomber, or that 40% of a typical first world resident's carbon footprint comes from flights, and it's the mode of transport that is at issue not minor efficiencies. Steve Job's only course of any importance was calligraphy, and turning him into a fully paid up economist would perhaps have killed his sense of typography, and therefore killed the Mac as the digital design tool of choice.

If we don't need experts from our education system, what do we need? We need radicals.

I am not even talking `radical' in terms of politics: radical engineers and designers are the people who caused the Industrial revolution and all the `Empire' stuff that the Tories hark back to. But who are these radicals?

In the Reclaim the Streets, Occupy or 99% movements, name any of the young people who have acted as focus point? There isn't any. In the same way, name any ideological youth who has come up from Tahir Square. None. These big events have all reached a point and them fizzled out, and cannot be expected to cause change because they lack strong leadership. Its almost as if the new social media creates radical groups, but smooths out radical individuality, or that the education system is already doing exactly what Gove wants: raising experts who shy away from any responsibility outside their scope.

We have only two real radicals so far: Chelsea Manning and Eric Snowdon, both of whom are passionate about something such that everything else (including personal safety) becomes a sideshow. But look at how much of an impact they have made: two people can change the world.

If we want Britannia to rule anything anymore, we need people like those two coming out from our educational system. How do we do that? By feeding their passion. Let our children do calligraphy (or philosophy or art) if they have a love for it, because it is passion for a subject that creates the radical personality that generates real economic progress and change through innovative patents, gainful hard work and novel design.

So there you have it. Not a book to just read, but a book to generate new ideas in yourself. A much needed and thoughtful political `ideas' book for the left leaning who are sick of the old leftist dogma and looking for something to help them form opinions for the newer, connected world we now inhabit.
5 stars.

*** Edit Nov 2013 ***
Just for the record, I am not a philosophy/politics graduate, but a Chartered Engineer (of the type Gove actually wants more of - I worked in the Energy generation industry for 10 years), before moving on into a role as development lead in online advertising. So some parts of this review are not punditry but based on actual practical experience of Engineering, Energy Policy vs Environment, and online security/data harvesting.
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on 7 January 2014
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This is one of Zizek's more accessible books as it is in the form of a series of 'conversations' and so, his stream of consciousness prose which can sometimes overwhelm his own penned work, is absent here. This more journalist approach means we get his thought more concisely and clearly on many contemporary topics which is all to the good to my mind. Essential reading particularly for those on the Left.
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VINE VOICEon 21 November 2013
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For those of us who access Zizek mainly through his writing this is an interesting possibility of a book. Is it a good summa of Zizek's thought, something that is sharp and incisive that gives you a flavour of his recent thought? Or is it fairly empty and lacking in the richness of Zizek's own books?

More of the latter I'm afraid. After the disappointing Less Than Nothing - a rambling, inchoate typical middle-quality Zizek book - this shorter book is even worse. Go back to his early writings. I think he has no solution, or his obsession with the need for new masters seems to recycle a standard Lacanoan cliche.
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VINE VOICEon 16 October 2013
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Main thing to note is that this book is based on live interviews so it reads as a series of conversations rather than a single piece of prose. In fact, that seems to suit Zizek well, and probably makes for a more readable treatment of his takes on various topics such as the Arab Spring, the global financial crisis, North Korea, the rise of China etc. etc. all fo which he covers here (among others). His analyses of Hollywood films, Swedish crime fiction and the rest called to mind one of his earlier books, Enjoy Your Symptom! (a brilliant guide to cinema and psychoanalysis which I highly recommend). At the end of the day he's a divisive figure -I like the guy and for me this serves as a pretty decent introduction to his less heavy-going side (as oppose to his more overtly scholastic work, such as, say, his recent account of Hegelian Dialectical Materialism, Less Than Nothing, which was, frankly, beyond me).
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VINE VOICEon 9 October 2013
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The format of this book takes a familiar classical structure, rather like dialogues. It's a device recently used by many others, such as Noam Chomsky, for discussions in the political arena. Zizek is a name seemingly in great currency right now within certain sections of the media community. Discussions mostly range in the arena of international politics, though things move onto more media-centric issues and popular culture, particularly where the two interesct (such as in the role of social media networks in the build-up to the Arab Spring). While this is extremely diverting, the nature of the dialogues is rather of the school of "you set 'em up...". I might have liked rather more combative interaction in the dialogues to test Zizek's positions yet further. However, as a starting point for discussion, this book is rather jolly knockabout fun (in relative terms for the work of someone like Zizek).
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on 11 May 2015
Slavoj Zizek has written lots of books (arguably too many) and there's actually little that's new in this one. His strengths are as an intellectual irritant and saboteur, which requires a certain amount of space and time to be effective. This book is essentially an extended interview, in which he reproduces ideas most of his readers will already be familiar with, but in shortened and sometimes vulgarized form. The book has worn badly (many of the questions are about current events, and it's clear that Zizek has no more insight into, say, the problems of Egypt than than the average newspaper pundit.) Save your money and buy another of his books instead.
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