on 31 March 2014
In Penguin’s Philosophy in Transit series, four leading philosophers have been tasked with discussing brand new ideas that challenge the reader to pause and contemplate the idea of transit. Using travel as a metaphor throughout, each of the stylish and thought-provoking Philosophy in Transit books is designed to allow readers to engage with brand new philosophical ideas relevant to the modern age. In Event, the second book in the series, Slavoj Zizek examines what an “event” really is and asks big questions about how things are connected and whether anything really qualifies as “new”.
According to Zizek, an event can run the gamut from an occurrence that shatters ordinary life to a radical political rupture, from a transformation of reality to a religious belief, and from the rise of a new art form to an intense experience like falling in love. As Zizek says, with such a myriad of definitions available, there is no choice but to take a risk and begin the journey towards understanding the concept of an “event”, a journey that Zizek likens to that undertaken by Elspeth McGillicuddy in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington.
Elspeth McGillicuddy is the innocuous old lady friend of Miss Marple who happens to be glancing out of the train window at just the right time to see a murder committed. The whole thing happens in an instant and, her view having been obscured by the train window, no one except Miss Marple believes her. For Slavoj Zizek, the experience of Elspeth McGillicuddy is the very epitome of an “event” – “something shocking, out of joint, that appears all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things.”
This is a nice, almost straightforward introduction to the subject matter of Event but things do rapidly become more complicated. Zizek expands upon this sudden, interrupting kind of event to describe how, at first, an event is “the effect that seems to exceed its causes” and that, further, the “space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its cause.” Zizek considers the various different definitions of “event” and addresses fundamental questions like: “are all things connected?; how much are we agents of our own fate?; and, in a world that is constantly changing, is anything new really happening?” It is through these questions of causality that the concept of “event” ties in with one of the central questions of philosophy: are all things connected with causal links?
After discussing the differences between transcendental and ontological means of philosophical investigation, Zizek steers Event on a journey that includes stopovers considering changes or disintegrations of the frame through which reality appears to us, felix culpa (a religious fall), the reality of Buddhist Enlightenment, the power and significance of truth, the role of self, and the central elements of psychoanalysis, before finally arriving at the undoing of an evental achievement. Zizek explains everything in a clear, almost patient, fashion and offers plenty of “real world” examples but these are still heavy topics. If I were actually reading Event on my commute then I would definitely have missed my stop.
Event is an extremely interesting book and, if accessible is not the right word, one that will have popular appeal. Zizek draws on universal references from Plato to arthouse cinema, the Big Bang to Buddhism, in order to make Event a journey into philosophy at its most exciting and elementary. Through his investigation into the nature of an “event”, Zizek has crafted a book that serves as an excellent primer to understanding philosophy and philosophical investigation in general.
on 16 March 2014
The work concludes with a diagnosis - which is just as much a pointless warning - that the history of progressive liberation is being erased from the historical record; our society is starting to think that the French Revolution and the twentieth century's aspirations and events never actually meant anything and therefore never really happened.
It also concludes with some remarks about the disappearance of the dignified and rational public space for argument and discussion; the private space of wierdnesses and perversity is slipping into the once honour-bound public market place, with people posting their private photographs - even of their sex life - onto on-line social sites, making comments (such as this one here) which can be as personal and wacky as possible - with no public rules and politenesses to govern them. This privatising of the public space is apparent in the world outside the internet - in our culture as a whole.
How can a society progress or argue or decide, if there is no responsible public space for events to happen on?
The question is fine by me. I agree that it is disastrous. But on a personal note, wouldn't it be a good thing if it were true that 'The Twentieth Century did not happen' in artistic matters, I mean painting. For me, there was no painting in that century; there wasn't much music, either.
We should probably start again - with something like a Western Buddhist culture. Zizek has a growing dislike of Buddhism and yoga. As far as I'm concerned, his dislike of meditative techniques is due to his preference for revolts and Marxism; but they won't achieve anything again in the West as they have done in the past.