Cutting through the cant to a bleak prognosis
IDEAS:The Year of Dreaming Dangerously By Slavoj Zizek, Verso, 135pp. £7.99
SLAVOJ ZIZEK is today’s salon intellectual of choice, a dazzling provocateur, part cultural critic, part philosopher – a narcissist but not an egoist. Or perhaps the other way around; impossible to be sure.
His enthusiasms are vast, his interests voracious, his reading as extensive as it is unpredictable, and his willingness to pronounce ex cathedra on anything under the sun entirely uninhibited: he can be inspiringly, unnervingly acute in his analyses, and he can be hugely, almost comically overbearing and mistaken.
He is the uncontested occupant (for the moment) of that most dangerous of positions, house intellectual du jour of the disenchanted. A man of great brio, this Zizek: he can dazzle you with a breathtaking insight or he can humble you, make you doubt your very ability to think, as he pursues an arcane distinction in Foucault, say, with the zeal of a Stalinist inquisitor – and these are dangerous qualities.
He lives in perpetual danger of being adopted as a master by the unevenly educated, of being dismissed on the grounds of a single mistaken emphasis by the exegetes of some thinker or other who has flashed through his mind for, perhaps, no more than a moment. He has a profound grasp of Hegel, by now his most obvious hero, a deep (but by many contested) grasp of Lacan, an impressive familiarity with the more recondite works of Marx – and a refreshing, sometimes hilarious appetite for explaining to old Karl just where he has got it wrong. He has, too, a forensic, clinical way with demolishing opponents, real or imagined, that makes him a fearsome philosophical enemy.
The Slovenian Zizek, in other words, is what they would call in Co Kerry one shmart boy. This is an exact and subtle phrase that carries an undertone of “not as shmart as he thinks he is” and an overtone of “too shmart for his own good”, as well as the straightforward acknowledgment that the boy in question is a very smart boy indeed.
The focus and scope of the title under review here are explained by Zizek himself as follows: “2011 was the year of dreaming dangerously, of the revival of radical emancipatory politics all around the world. Now, a year later, every day brings new evidence of how fragile and inconsistent that awakening was, as the signs of exhaustion begin to show.” His concerns are twofold: to explicate what has been happening, and to examine if it is possible to steer towards the future between “nostalgic- narcissistic remembrance of sublime moments of enthusiasm and the cynical-realist explanation of why these attempts to change the situation inevitably had to fail”.