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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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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...

'Commons'

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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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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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 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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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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VINE VOICEon 20 October 2013
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Zizek is a strange animal - read many of his books and you are in the middle of the sort of language that appears in the wikipedia article on him "For Zizek, the Real names points within the ontological fabric, knitted by the hegemonic systems of representation and reproduction, that nevertheless resist full inscription into its terms and that may as such attempt to generate sites of active political resistance" etc etc.

However he also regularly writes articles for newspapers and magazines which are full of fascinating ideas and more importantly not couched in obscure terminology. Fortunately this book is in this vein - it consists of a series of interviews held I would guess around 2012 - the exact date isn't given - which are very accessible and a very enjoyable and challenging read. Zizek shares his insights into various political issues around the world - the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, socialism in South America, change in the west - he speaks on ideology, violence and revolution, Marxism and left theory today - here are a few examples of the ideas covered.

What is the function of higher education today? It seems designed to create experts as people who solve the problems defined by society - so the sort of problems our society throws up needs experts to resolve those problems without changing society. But Zizek says we need people who think in the sense of asking why are these problems? Why are they happening? For example, what sort of society is it that generates so much mental illness?

Zizek defines the proletarian position - the proletariat are of course those whose only option is to sell their labour in order to live, so many are in this zero level - but not just the proletarian as traditionally understood - they are no longer one subject - there are many proletarian positions, we have to rethink exploitation, everything needs to be re-understood.
Zizek asks how does society change? We need people to feel a sense of injustice, and we need rage, but these two together are not enough - who is the target of the rage? A lot of political anger in europe and indeed the west is directed from the right towards the poor - the immigrant, the weak, the disabled. But this may also be because the state is seen as unchangeable - too strong to change. In other countries - some arab countries perhaps - the state was seen to be weak, people stood up to the state - this perhaps was true at the end of the communist era - there was weakness at the top - so rage attacks the weak, but sometimes it isn't the weak who are the cause - so they just suffer - but other times it is the weak at the top, in charge of the state - who really are the cause, and now attacking them actually does generate change, and now things start to happen.
Zizek also describes envy as a rage against people such that we are willing to hurt ourselves in order to hurt others - there is a Slovene story that some people if asked if they would rather have one cow if their neighbour would get two, or have one cow killed if two of their neighbour's cows died, would always choose the latter. So the problem isn't egoism - self-love, but ressentiment and envy (Jesus remember commanded to love others "as you love yourself", but many hate others as they hate themselves). Walter Benjamin described capitalism is a religion - many people want to earn money, and are driven to do so, to the detriment of health, happiness and family - so they are far from being egoistic hedonists - they are rather driven to produce and earn above all else.

There is an understanding that we need to perform - if nothing else, we need to work - work to exhaustion if need be - we have no time for anything else, all else is sacrificed to make ends meet - to earn, so we are fearful of anything that interferes with this drive - we fear real love as it affects our performance. Imagine a sports person who fell in love and suddenly they don't want to train anymore, all they want to do is be with the person they love. They can't practice 8 hours and day, 10 hours a day - they have been slain by love, so people fear things like love as it doesn't fit in with our need to be lean and mean, to be efficient and work.

Experts can't predict what is going to happen - especially with politics or social movements - it is like a weather forecast, small changes quickly turn into bigger ones. Someone stares back at the state and the state backs down - shows weakness - and suddenly a storm kicks off. We have a sort of political global warming, where we know things are going to happen but we can't always predict when and where. "Political miracles" are these storms of political protest, we can't predict them, but they can arise anywhere - they aren't supernatural miracles but they break the rules of what is supposed to be politically "possible".
Moral protest - things like civil rights in the USA in the 1960s or Gandhi against the English depends on some minimal moral sense. We have to recognise that this doesn't always exist. Gandhi suggested the Jews under the Nazis should all commit mass suicide to shame Germany against the world - but the Nazis wouldn't have worried. In the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission people would not be charged if they confessed and told the truth. Of course for many this was a cathartic experience which enabled them to put their past behind them but for some they shamelessly confessed with no sense of shame - the police officers who killed Steve Biko apparently effectively bragged of how they tortured and murdered him, with no sense of shame, and were not of course prosecuted as they had confessed to the commission.

Zizek's notion of universality seems strange - he doesn't seem to believe in any specific universal values but rather sees the universal as asking a question - the "site of a problem-deadlock" - and more bizarrely the importance of racist jokes "they're the best" (p.137) because - it seems - what is valuable in multiculturalism is seeing yourself in the eyes of the other as doing something strange and unusual - however given that mockery is often accompanied by bullying, self-harm and even suicide I'm not convinced of the positive results of such a recommendation.

More importantly perhaps is the idea behind the title. We are told today that with technology anything is possible - trips to mars, energy crisis solved, medical breakthroughs - believe it is possible. But with politics we are told nothing is possible - we can't change society, we can't make the world better, fairer, more equal, more just - so Zizek says, for politics "demand the impossible".

Marketing is getting people to buy things they don't want; politics is getting people to vote for who they don't want - who will implement policies that will directly disadvantage them. If we are to escape the madness of politics today in which people demand what they are against we need to instead ensure they demand in impossible.
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VINE VOICEon 26 July 2014
BOOK REVIEW
Title: Demanding the impossible
Author: Slavoj Zizek (Edited Yong-june Park) Publisher: Polity Press Date: 2013 Price: £11.95 pb pp.144
This book began as a part of the Global Humanities Project of Indigo Sowon, an educational centre in Busan, South Korea. Zizek visited South Korea, and was asked questions by a number of young people there. This book is the record of those questions, and the answers given by Zizek.
Most of the questions are quite short, and so are most of the answers – just a page or two in most cases. The questions have titles like ‘Politics and responsibility’, ‘Politicization of ethics’, ‘Who is afraid of a failed revolution?’, ‘Another world is possible’, ‘The public use of scandal’, ‘Deadlock of totalitarian communism’, ‘The fear of real love’ and so on.
The answers are always provocative. ‘We should be realists. But nonetheless, we should be open to a kind of miracle. Things like this (the Egyptian uprising) are miracles. I don’t mean in religious terms. I mean miracles in the sense that things like this always explode against the predictions of all the specialists, who are always wrong.’
This is an incredibly readable book, full of jokes and unexpected insights, and obviously all concerned had a good time in creating it. But don’t expect to come out of it with a clear head. The last line in the book is: “So this would be for me the great task of thinking today: to redefine and rethink the limits of the possible and the impossible.”

John Rowan
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