Monday, 3 July 2017

Slavoj Zizek - Philosophy of the 21st Century

Before I begin, I should point out that this review was originally posted on Goodreads, however due to the limit on how much you can actually write, I had to move this review from Goodreads over to my blog. However, while what I have written may appear a little odd, it is because I have simply posted it directly, only editing for glaring (ie I can see them) grammatical and spelling mistakes. While Zizek might not be everybody's cup of tea, I did find this first experience of his writings quite illuminating. Oh, and the Goodreads Review has now been cut down significantly.

20th November 2011

Once again I have began a commentary on a book (Living in the End Times) that I hadn't finished, but the main reason here is because I wanted to read a couple of more books so that I could then wrap them, pack them, and post them before Christmas, and anyway, I still had five and a half weeks to finish this book, so when I read the other two, I did intend on to going back and finishing this book (which I eventually did). The second reason was that there is so much in this book to discuss that I don't really want to let the ideas that I had picked up from reading this book drift too obscurity.

Zizek is a Slovanian left wing philosopher and is a self professed communist and atheist. Now, remember, he is Slovanian so he would have experienced first hand the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and this is something that is addressed at the start. Here he refers to the dramatic paradigm shift in Poland, in that it went from a totalitarian state to a free market society, however his indication was that it was not the free market economy that the people necessarily wanted, but rather free speech. His suggestion is that they did not necessarily want to swing so far to the right that the state pretty much takes a back seat and allows the economy to self-regulate. I do not necessarily suspect that that is entirely correct, because the pure communist state did collapse under economic pressures, namely because there was no incentive for people to do anything, and as such, nothing ever got produced, which resulted in empty shelves in the shops. Zizek does indicate that in reference to Cuba, where Raoul Castro is blaming the west for their current food crisis, when in reality it is because nobody is actually the fertile land.

In some of the commentaries I have read of this book there is an indication that Zizek seems to come to no real conclusion, and also that he seems to jump quite a lot. In regards to conclusions, I feel that his intention is to try to have us think about the things that we are saying, and those of us who can think and act, can then act on them. Yes, he does seem to jump about, and at times I wonder what his discussions in the chapters actually have to do with the chapters, but despite that, there are a lot of thought provoking ideas that he does write about, and the trick is to pick up the ideas that sit quite well and actually make sense. As for purpose, well, those of us who know Zizek knows that he writes about a concept of the Big Other. This concept is basically the social conscience, which is summed up in an Ancient Greek word oklos (of which crowd is a rough, and very bad, translation).

The Single Minded Crowd

Oklos is defined as a crowd, however the actual definition refers to a crowd as a single thinking entity. Take for instance the scene where Jesus is presented by Pilate and the entire crowd cries out 'crucify him'. That is the oklos. Anyway, many left wing philosophers write about how it is the capitalist elite who are the problem in the world, but Zizek takes a different approach by saying that it is actually the oklos. The reason is that in a capitalist society the direction of the corporations and the government is determined by the will of the people. Two examples from Australia will outline this. First we have the issue of pokie machines which are a social blight on our landscape. Many people hate these machines and the damage that they cause, so much that politicians have been elected on anti-pokie machine tickets. However, recently, a group tried to force through an amendment to the constitution of a major corporation to restrict their use of pokie machines. Basically the amendment only garnered 2.5% of the vote, which goes to show that while there is a minority who despise poker machines, the majority either don't care, or even prefer the profits that the poker machines bring. Despite 60% of the vote being in the hands of superfunds, these funds represent millions of investors who all want a return on their investment, so when the question of listening to an ethical minority over listening to a majority who simply want returns, the majority always wins out.

The second example deals with refugees. Once again, in Australia, there is a minority who believe that the government's treatment of refugees is appalling and demands a more compassionate approach. While Labour was out of power they were incredibly vocal against the Liberal (read Conservative) Party's policies regarding refugees. However, once Labour were elected into office, they suddenly realised that if they wished to continue to win elections, they needed to change their stance on refugees because, despite the cries of the minority, it was the majority that demanded tougher sanctions. In fact, we have even seen the Greens drift further to the right in this regard, realising that if they also wished to keep increasing their share of the votes, they could not take a compassionate stance either (though their stance has changed somewhat since I originally wrote this, but that has to do with the horrid conditions that refugees are facing in detention centres).

A Cycle of Grief

Now, Living in the End Times follows the idea of the grief cycle by applying it to a terminally ill society, and Zizek splits it into chapters reflecting each of the stages of the cycle, being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, with some other chapters thrown in. As mentioned, it can be difficult to see how what he writes actually relates to society experiencing the grief cycle simply because he seems regularly head off on tangents. 
Denial seems to be more aimed at the left and how they believe that something can actually be done about the problems facing society, and the issue of multiculturalism and tolerance comes up a lot. However, as he recognises, the compassionate left first of all is a minority and secondly dwells in the city. In many cases, they believe, wrongly, that we can learn to tolerate these other cultures, but in reality what is happening is that these other cultures are slowly being absorbed into one mono-culture, if that is what is happening, because in many cases the cultures are simply drifting into ghettos and enclaves. We see this in Paris and we even in Sydney (with a huge Lebanese population in Lakemba and a large Asian population in Cabramatta). In a sense, the idea of a multicultural society, in Zizek's mind (and I agree with him) is impossible, particularly when it comes to religion. For instance, we may seek to tolerate other religions, but when our religion tells us that all other religions are wrong, we either transform our religion to accept it, or we put up barriers against those of who think differently from us. Further, it is only the secularists that seem to hold on to this falacy of all religions being the same.

While I am on the subject of religion, I want to explore what I find really surprising about Zizek, and that is for an Athiest, he is quite accepting of the teachings of Christ, and of Christianity. However, I note that he has mentioned a flaw in modern Christianity that has stained this religion for over 1500 years: the question of wealth. Ideally, the original faith was one of sharing resources, however once it became a state religion, the problem of uneven distribution of wealth came to play, so instead of addressing it, Christianity shifted its teachings to accept it. Now, in many cases, the issue of Greed is something that pastors will say 'bad, bad' from the pulpit, but not actually address. In fact, with myself, I am almost loathe to give to the church, since if I were to impoverish myself by tithing, I don't trust the church, or the church as it exists today, to provide for my needs. To me, it almost seems as if the violent attacks against abortion and gay marriage is almost like the church trying to make up for 1500 years of the acceptance of greed. It is like the Christian leader that does extra well as a leader because he is trying to make up for his porn addiction. In fact, it is the moral core of Christianity, in particular the idea of self-sacrifice, that Zizek seems to admire so much about the faith.

Failures of Multiculturalism

Another aspect of the issue of multiculturalism is the idea of the burka (and I can relate this this). In Western countries, there is almost a repulsion against the burka, namely because it conceals the part of the body that defines us so much: our face. When we speak to people we like to see their face because it enables us to relate to them. In a way what the burka does is that it places a barrier between the people communicating. The idea that the French have in banning the burka is that it is a symbol of the oppression of woman, but in doing so does not necessarily make the lives of the women better. In fact it could make them worse, with husbands refusing to allow them to leave the house. In a way the banning of the burka is not so much freeing women (just like banning abortion is not about saving the lives of the unborn), but rather about creating an acceptable mono-culture for everybody (and remember that we have had mono-cultures before, such as Rome, these cultures tend to borrow from other cultures and create what could be considered a superculture).

Another example is the idea of the Roma, and Zizek tells a story of some Roma who were camped out near a village in Solvenia. When the villagers demanded that they be moved, the left wing elements in the city cried foul and called for tolerance, however what is not revealed is that these city dwellers do not know or understand the Roma. Moreso, while the liberals like to cry  out about tolerance, many do not actually realise that the Roma themselves are a very closed society. Though it is true that attitudes towards them have been quite bad, there is also a distrust within the Roma of those who are not Roma. At least the Amish in the United States give their children the opportunity to chose either their lifestyle, or that of the outside, and are also quite welcoming towards outsiders (though you will discover that if you do wander into a pub in some regional areas you will be treated with suspicion, or even outright hostility).

Zizek at the Movies

One of the cool things about the second chapter was not so much his analysis of movies, but the movies that he analysed, namely The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda. Seriously, anybody who analyses Kung Fu Panda has got to be cool, but in any case, not only does he indicate that the cartoon is a means of creating a story that is absurd and would be offensive as a live action film, it also shows the idea of the collapse of the meta-narrative. The meta-narrative is the basic social foundation of our western society, but as the idea of multiculturalism imposes itself upon the oklos the original story begins to break down, and that is what we see in the eastern philosophies of Kung Fu Panda. In a way, the fact is that both China and India, large social groupings of people of many differing beliefs, have created what is considered a relativistic mindset. This was similar with the Roman World, until the narrative of the Christian worldview took over and gave us the modern meta-narrative, namely the idea that history moves from beginning to end, with struggles against evil in which good ultimately triumphs. However, this triumph does not come easily as it nonetheless involves sacrifice, with the supreme sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross.

Anyway, here is a video of Zizek talking about Kung Fu Panda:


However, the Dark Knight also indicates that there is a change in the narrative, a sort of lie that forms a part of the sacrifice so that the idea of the good may reign supreme. The character of Harvey Dent is always seen as being the element of good, however, for those of us who have seen the film, we know that in the end this character is twisted, by selfish means, namely that he lives while his beloved dies, and becomes the element of evil. His death, in the end, is covered up so that the idea of good reigning is held out to the oklos. Interestingly enough, and this is the case in the sequel Dark Knight Rises, the villains of the piece are actually the honest characters, honest in their goals and aspirations, and also out to expose the truth. It is almost as if the narrative has changed from that of the hero being honest and exposing the lie (though that does form the basis of many a thriller still) to the villain being the honest one and the crime that he is committing is exposing the lie. It is as if the oklos itself must continue to be deceived for stability to be maintained, and thus the idea of denial.

I also wish to mention his discussion of the remake, as is evident with the Will Smith film, I am Legend. Now, the original story, and film, was about the last man alive living in a world of vampires. In the end the man is killed, and as such humanity becomes the stuff of legend. Thus again we see the idea of multiculturalism, or the move to the super culture, being played out. Where in our world the vampires are the stuff of legend, the world changes so that the vampires become the norm, and humans are now legend, as is the title I am Legend. However, in the modern remake we see a shift, and the idea that humanity is holding on by its fingernails, and one man survives so as to allow humanity to be saved, the Christ figure. Thus, the idea of the legend shifts from that which is lost to the mists of history, to the idea of the sacrificial figure that saves humanity from destruction.

The Cycle Moves On

Now we come to the chapter on Anger, and there is a lot of discussion about violence and the idea of violence, so first I will go over the idea I mentioned earlier about revolution. Remember, that it was not so much that Poland wanted a free economic system, but rather a system where people could speak and think how they wished. It was a desire for a socialist state where there was political freedom. However, interestingly enough, to maintain a revolution one must resort to violence, as is seen with both Russia and with France. Consider that in 1917 Lenin was in the minority, and when he did win, he had to move to silence the opponents so that he might create his idea of a utopian socialist state, one that, within a few years, came close to collapse.

Zizek looks at the animal world, a world where it appears that the inhabitants live a purely socialistic existence. There appears to be no competition, nor is there any need or want, however we must remember that this is also idealised. In the animal world might means right and only the strongest survives. When two lions are confronted with one deer, the lions will fight to get the deer. I do not think he is right when he talks about the animal world as being a socialist utopia, but rather that we admire the animal world because we, as humans, recognise that we are above them, and we look down on them in the same way that we believed the gods, beings superior to ourselves, would look down on us. It is a form of tourism, which in a way makes me balk about so called short term missions to third world countries, because in a way we travel there as gods walking among mortals.

Now I will turn to the idea of the biblical concept of turning the other cheek. To our mind we believe that it is the idea of not responding to violence with violence, however Zizek suggests that being struck on the cheek in ancient times was a form of shaming, thus to turn the other cheek was a rebuke to that by simply saying, 'now make me your equal'. However, Zizek does go on to suggest that sometimes to respond to a fight by fighting is to actually concede to the bully, and that the best way to respond to violence is to turn away because, in a sense, that is a violent act in and off itself. Returning a blow is compromising yourself rather than defending yourself, and makes me think of the person who gets even more angrier when you do not respond with anger, but with love: 'why don't you fight me!'.

Delusional Democracies

Now, Zizek really does turn a lot of concepts that we take foregranted on their head and points out how we, living in so called advanced democracies, are actually fooling ourselves. We believe that progress, and wealth, can only come through democracy, however he points out that this is not the case. When we think of totalitarian states we either think of Africa, which is a basketcase, or we believe the lies that are peddled to us by the media. In reality, many of the democracies (South America for instance, and also Africa) are the basket cases, and it is the totalitarian regimes that are the societies that are advancing. Take Iraq for instance. The reason Iraq was originally invaded was not because it was a basket case totalitarian state (like Zimbabwe) but it was a totalitarian state that was progressing. In fact, when Sadam took power, he increased the wealth of the average Iraqi a hundred fold. The problem was that he was a threat, which is why the Americans bombed the country back into the stone age. In fact, if we look at history (even recent history) we discover that the states that have progressed the most in the shortest amount of time have been totalitarian states. Germany pulled itself out of the great depression much faster than the liberal democracies (who were only able to do so by declaring war against Germany) and then look at the so called Chinese miracle. The difference is that a totalitarian state does not need to go to an election every four or so years, which means that they can have a much longer term view, rather than having to commit to only short term goals, and the myth of a budget surplus. In fact, when the latest advance is the iPhone 5, which is thinner than all of its rivals, one must wonder if this really is progress.

Okay, I think I should have a discussion about the problems with revolutions, and that is because it ends up that only a small minority really wants the system to actually change. It is only when things really get bad that the entire population will rise up in an attempt to overthrow the existing order, and even then it is usually only small changes that they want. Most of the revolutions of history have generally been wars among the wealthy classes. We see this with the English revolution in the 17th century, which was a war between the wealthy aristocrats (supported by the Catholic Church) and the wealthy merchants (supported by the Protestants). Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, such as with France, Russia, the revolutions of 1848, and the Arab Spring. I will not comment on the Arab Spring as we are not sufficiently past that to actually see the effects, but with the French and Russian revolutions there was really no actual change in the system of government. Both began as totalitarian states and both ended as totalitarian states. In fact with France, the revolution in a sense is still ongoing, with the last major event occurring in 1968 (and even then we see it in the streets of French cities today with the immigrant minorities running around burning cars – the insurance companies must be loving that).

The problem with these two revolutions was not just the timing, in fact the timing was perfect, a majority of the people had simply become fed up and the government was so weak that it could not effectively put down an uprising (unlike Libya which required outside intervention). Anyway, we see similar events within both Russia and France, namely that once the revolution had taken hold, the immediate thought that came to mind was protecting the gains that were made the revolution, which resulted in a prolonged period of terror. This was more noticeable in France because the purges in Russia came later when Stalin was attempting to protect his own position. However, even in Russia, once the Bolsheviks had taken power their position was still weak, and they had to fight against the combined forces of the capitalist west to maintain their gains. Even internally they had problems, since the Mensheviks, which were more popular than the Bolsheviks, threatened to derail the communist experiment. This resulted in the suspension of elections, permanently. Even then, the problem of free speech arose, and when Gorbachev finally allowed freedom of speech, it was effectively the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

As I have mentioned previously, Zizek says an awful lot of interesting things, and the reason I am going on with this is because I feel that I have to make a comment on them as well. For instance, Capitalism is the art of selling nothing. I am not simply mentioning the concept of the brand, which is the classic example of selling nothing. Say you have two pairs of sneakers, made in the same factory by the same people, for the same price, but on sold to different companies. One goes to K-mart and the other goes to Nike. The K-mart no-name brand sells for say $20.00, but the Nike brand goes for $160 (though I believe the price has come down recently). The difference in price is basically the brand, or what some call the goodwill. In reality it is nothing, you are simply forking out money to be a part of a story, the Nike story.
The rise of the internet has brought a new dimension to the art of selling nothing. While the MMORPGs were the ones who initially created these virtual worlds, at least there was a point to them. You could escape into a fantasy realm and experience fantasy adventures. However evolution has brought about the realms of Second-Life, which is pretty much like an internet version of The Sims. In this imaginary world you basically play a person, a normal person living a normal life, in a pretty normal world (I have never played this, and have no intention of doing so). However it has gone one step further in that you can use real money to purchase imaginary items. In fact people have made a fortune selling what is effectively electrons and computer programs to make people in this virtual world feel better than themselves. The art of selling nothing has finally come of age.

Normalising Trauma

Now, I should return to the chapters, and this time I will speak of the one on depression. Here Zizek spends a lot of time talking about pain and trauma. One thing that he mentions and I can attest to, is that when one is under anaesthesia one can still feel pain. It seems that all the anaesthesia does is prevent you from crying out. I guess this is why many of us turn to drugs (or flee into the virtual realm). We cannot get rid of the pain, but we can flee from it and hide in our own numbness and hope that it will go away. By hiding, or numbing, ourselves we can prevent ourselves from screaming out. We also see this is the movement of faith, for as the Bible said, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. When Paganism had proven to the world to provide nothing, and Jewish legalism did not unburden people's guilt, Christ burst into the world to tell the world that they could have a direct relationship with God, and in one act undermined the powers of the priesthoods. However, two thousand years have come and gone, and we discover that what Christ tore down, man has re-established, and in many ways, our desires to put people between us and God has made us forget the truth of Christianity, which in turn as led to disenchantment, and thus to Atheism. Therefore, in a way, to get rid of the priesthood and its control over our lives, we have gotten rid of God.

Now I will turn to the idea of the normalising of catastrophes. There are many examples of how this has happened these days, and the one that Zizek mentions (which, being a Slovakian, is probably close to his heart) is the siege of Sarajevo. When it began it was a shock and horror, but after two to three weeks it becomes a normal part of life. The same thing happened with the civil war in Libya, and it is now true of the civil war in Syria. Sure, it is still reported on, and occasionally we tune in to find out if something new has happened (though as of the date of this posting it has simply become a fact of life), but with our society suffering from a severe case of ADD we find it almost impossible to watch history unfold. It simply happens too slowly. In our western mind we want history to work like a movie that lasts only an hour and a half, longer if it is really good, but not too long. Or we want it to work like a series, where every episode brings a new event and a new revelation.

When one says that Zizek leaves nothing untouched, that is so true. For instance he even touches on internet dating. Here we have the art of seduction and passion being transferred into the virtual realm. Now, I am not necessarily having a go at internet dating, not in the same way that you see all those sour pusses bitch and whine about how pretty much every dating sites suck (probably because they are doing it wrong), but the reason I am not too keen on them is because they take away that je ne sais quoi (and yes, it does mean the 'I do not know what'). You know, that feeling you get when your eyes meet across the crowded room, or that woman you catch checking you out on the train. What these sites do is that they break you down into a series of statistics and based on computer algorithms, attempt to match you (this is Emily, she likes dancing, nights at home, and walks along the beach). I would prefer the eyes across the room any day.

Now let me mention the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and how that was handled (or not handled). We see it there, and in many other places (and working in litigation, I can speak from experience), that it all comes down to a blame game. People's livelihoods are ruined so they resort to fingerpointing and seeking compensation. This blame game goes right up to the President, and even comes to the point where they say 'we can't hurt BP too much because too many pensioners have their money invested in BP'. Zizek is right when he says that we need to break away from this cycle of blame and compensation, of litigation and billing hours, and look at how we can learn from these disasters so that they do not happen again, as opposed to rushing to your local solicitor and issuing proceedings (or denying all liability on the grounds that if you admit to doing something wrong then you are going to be up for a lot of money).

Even then, it is not possible to learn from a disaster, but only to understand how fragile our society is. When a minor volcanic eruption occurred in Iceland the entire aviation industry in Europe was shut down. Two hundred years ago, if a volcano erupted in Iceland (or Argentina), the only people who were effected were those who lived on (or near) the volcano. Now, the entire world stands to be effected. It is as if Neil Armstrong's one giant leap for mankind has been effectively neutralised. Even then, as many say, the entire Western capitalist system is one fat finger away from complete collapse.

The Final Words

Now, I am almost coming to the end if this (and I applaud you if you are still reading, because this commentary is almost as long as Zizek's book - well, no, not quite, but you know what I mean). Anyway, there are a couple of sayings that have stood out, the first being: when it is no longer possible to tell a lie all that is left is the truth, but when it comes from an official mouth, the truth is little more than a lie supported by the facts. Take George Bush for instance, when it came clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the only thing they could fall back on was regime change, and the desire to bring democracy to Iraq. Well, even though that was the truth all along, it was still a lie. Regime change had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with making sure that Iraq was bombed back into the stone age. No wonder people where insulted when in response to their protests Bush said that they were going into Iraq so that the Iraqis could have the freedom to protest. That was not the point, because it was clear that this is not what the protesters wanted (and I was just as insulted when Alexander Downer's response was 'there are things that you do not know about the situation'). I guess Oliver Stone was right in his movie that it seems that all Bush wanted to do was to prove to his father that he was not a failure, and even then he failed at that.

The second quote I will simply quote verbatim (from page 402) and will not comment on it:
this is the kind of god needed by the radical left today: a god who has fully 'become' a man, a comrade amongst us, crucified between two social outcasts, who not only 'does not exist' but knows this himself, accepts his own erasure, passing over entirely into the love that binds all members of the 'holy ghost' that is, of the party or emancipatory collective.
The two final points that I want to make is this, that true fundamentalism is being so strong in your faith that you do not see the need to condemn or ridicule others. Condemning others actually demonstrates a weakness in your faith, which is what made me realise why the New Atheists fight so hard for their position, and why they spend money to try to convince people that there is no God. Honestly, if an atheist were comfortable with his faith, he would pity those of us who believe in God, as opposed to attempting to mock, ridicule, and debate us with fine sounding arguments. In the end it will not work. Mind you, the same goes for the Christians who see a need to condemn others for their sin, which is generally a way of not so much distracting others from their sin, but making them feel okay with the fact that they themselves are sinners, and in the end do not need to do anything about it.

The final point is the purpose of the modern democracy, and that is a means of institutionalising revolution, namely creating a peaceful and bloodless way of removing a disliked government and replacing it with a government that is not hated as much. In a way it satisfies our desire for change, and we know that if we have made a wrong choice, we can always change it four years time. Mind you, the average time a government remains in power (at least in Australia) is around three terms, though sometimes you get some that last a lot longer (or a lot shorter).
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Slavoj Zizek - Philosophy of the 21st Century by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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