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”.
All this is vastly entertaining, not least because the author is having such an exuberant, maddening and constructive good time by posing four-dimensional questions about what, precisely, is going on right now in our increasingly baffled and baffling world.
This short book covers an immense amount of ground, with Zizek as a kind of manic avatar, a cosmic advance guard of the unborn future, examining and pronouncing on domination and exploitation under late capitalism, the return of ethnicity as a negative political driver, the Occupy movement (he’s for and against), the desert of post-ideology, unrest and upheaval in the Arab worlds, and what it means that we live in nonevental times. (As regards this latter, as far as I understand him, a nonevental moment is any moment in history when emancipatory change is not a possibility – but by the time you read this, Zizek may well have decided to assign another meaning entirely to this term. In any case, he is much exercised by the proposition, most cogently advanced by himself, that we live in a historical moment when change, real systemic epochal change, may not be possible; indeed he seems haunted by the possibility that change may no longer be possible, ever.)
Zizek, you see, describes himself as a communist, and part of the fun of this book lies in figuring out just what he means by that word. It won’t in the least spoil your enjoyment of this treasure hunt if I tell you that you won’t find the answer, not least because the author himself seems still a long way off deciding what he means by it. One thing he does not mean is communist as in, say, Soviet communist.
In one of the many witty asides that pepper the book, he proposes: “the reason why (ex-) Communists are re-emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism: their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class fits perfectly with the progress of contemporary capitalism towards a managerial system without the bourgeoisie.”
It is not always possible with Zizek to have any confidence that you have understood him, as he is entirely and gleefully proud of the fact that he constantly contradicts himself. Nevertheless, there is a discernible recurring theme in the book: nothing we’ve tried to date has made it possible for us to live as full human beings, and it is possible that it is too late to hope for a solution to the problem.
Zizek’s self-imposed task, if he will forgive my putting it in such a determinist way, is to cut through the cant; to accept, for instance, the reality of an Islamist presence in the Egyptian revolt or to expose the futility of social-democratic tinkering with dysfunctional economies, and invite us to consider the modern desert not as we have had it explained, not as we fantasise it, but exactly as it is.
This does not make for easy reading. Those who are likely to be put off by the density of argument in the earlier chapters might well consider opening the book at his brilliant but chilling analysis of that excellent TV series The Wire.
It isn’t, I hasten to say, that his argument here is less dense or disciplined than in other chapters, but at least there is the comfort of traversing a landscape you might find familiar – though you won’t think it quite so familiar by the time Zizek has finished extracting layers of shimmering meaning from it.
Zizek’s provocations are genuinely that: provocations. Page by page, sometimes sentence by sentence, I found myself challenged to re-examine things I thought I’d already understood, and, as often, I found myself brought up short in a kind of exhilaration, the ozone dizziness that comes with finding yourself in an unexpected place.
Nevertheless, nevertheless . . . I closed the book with a sense of disappointment. Perhaps in part this stemmed from Zizek’s bizarre extolling of the protofascist Spartan state as a place of radical liberty, but mostly it stems from the realisation that, for all his refreshing novelty (and he is something quite new under the sun), Zizek is at heart an aristocratic fatalist. He has no instinct for the powerless, no instinct for all those condemned to the living moment.
His motto might well be læténtur cæli cadere (let the heavens fall), but that, I’m afraid, for all the considerable brilliance of his analysis, is just not good enough. To be scrupulously fair, though, nor is it meant to be – and just as well. Slavoj Zizek would make a terrifying tyrant.
Theo Dorgan is a poet and writer. His most recent books are Time on the Ocean (New Island) and the poetry collection Greek (Dedalus Press)