Sunday, May 9, 2010

Living in the End Times - Introduction

I know I said that I was going to write about The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek, but I'm going to make a modification to my plans. Zizek's newest book, Living in the End Times, just came out and I simply can't resist the urge to be up-to-date with the latest-and-greatest. I am as shallow as an inflatable kiddy pool. So my goal is the same, only with a different book:

If the last Zizek book I read was any indication, this book will be a tough but interesting read. I will try and summarize the book here as I'm reading it. This will help me understand it better and maybe help others too.

Zizek starts by saying that people's expectations of democracy in the ex-Communist countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall were often unrealistic. They wanted the freedoms and material abundances of capitalism without losing the security that the old Communist regimes provided. The people that protested against the regimes didn't necessarily want a capitalist society, but some of the qualities those societies possess, such as a more reliable system of justice and the freedom to associate with others without the State watching. The revolution itself was exciting and new, but they were not prepared for the long and hard work of building a new society. This is why, Zizek says, the people's lives were still miserable--despite now technically being capitalist societies, the Communists were still in power.

He says that today's traditional bipolarity between liberal and conservative centrists is being replaced by a new bipolarity--a technocratic, multiculturalist party versus a party of passionate political struggle. He says this is a result of a certain unease we are feeling in liberal capitalism (or Unbehagen in der Kulture as Freud would have put it). I think he's saying that the West is feeling doubt as to whether capitalism is all that it's cracked up to be, especially with this recession going on.

He then looks at the anti-Communism resistance in Eastern Europe and the different reasons for why they were protesting. One reason is they wanted to return to an abstract idea of "true" Socialism as defined by Marx. The second was the desire for a space in society outside the control of the State, in which to freely engage in criticism of society. The third was a desire for a fully democratic society. Zizek wonders if the first and second reasons were merely compromises and if they ought not be considered legitimate forms of Communism.

Zizek then lists his "four riders of the apocalypse" which signal the end of global capitalism: ecological crisis, biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself, and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusion ("inclusive exclusion"). He elaborates on the fourth point by describing the situation of immigrant workers in the Middle Eastern oil states. These people come from all over Asia, having been promised high wages. When they arrive, they find out that these were lies and they actually get paid much less. Their passports are taken from them and if they try to organize and protest, the police beat them down. He also talks about slums and describes the ones in India which are within the borders of the country, but which the government has no control over.

Zizek says that if such a group or rouge state (is he hinting at Iran or North Korea?) were to get its hands on nuclear or biological weaponry, the results would be disastrous. He says it's just a matter of time before this happens and that the West is in a "collective fetishistic disavowal"--we know it will happen, but can't bring ourselves to face this fact.

Zizek goes on to say that global capitalism is going through the five stages of grief, as defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychologist: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (each chapter in the book is dedicated to one of these stages). He says that, after going through this process, we will see this as a chance to start something new and better.

He then seems to imply that the ideas in this book may be hard to swallow by talking about how people react to criticism. He says we often feel intimidated when faced with criticism and he asks why it has to be this way. Why can't we simply listen in a detached way and decide for ourselves whether or not we agree. The reason, he says, is because our daily lives are a "lived lie". It takes a great deal of effort to break from our daily routines. One way to do this is to become aware of oneself and then terrified by it. Zizek sites Marx who said that one must do this in order to give oneself the courage to change.

He then comments on how rightists tend to say what they are thinking while leftists say one thing and mean another. This goes to show, he says, that one can learn more from "intelligent critical conservatism (not reactionaries)" than from liberals. (I would consider Fox News to be as an example of reactionary conservatism.) He says liberals ignore the contradictions in society, while conservatives acknowledge their existence and say they are unsolvable.

One such contradiction is that the very thing that capitalism stands for, consumption, undermines what makes it possible in the first place: work ethic. You are encouraged to buy lots and enjoy yourself, but in order to make the money to do all this, you need to work.

Zizek also says that capitalism is an "institutionalization of envy." I think what this means is that if you see someone with an iPad, for example, you might feel a desire to own one too. You don't really want the iPad because you need it for something, you want it mostly because other people have one.  And capitalism encourages this.

He then lists two kinds of attitudes toward the world: blind-faith and an openness towards the unexpected. He says the latter is the preferable way to live. He says sometimes you have to believe something in order to see it, that you must be engaged in order to experience it. He sites love as an example: only the lover experiences the love, nobody else does. He says that people will try to understand something without becoming engaged with it and will make the mistake of lying to themselves in an attempt to understand it. When this fails, they try harder by lying even more and it gets them nowhere.

Zizek then addresses his own doubts about whether his ideas have any value. He says he often receives contradictory criticism from readers of his books, such as being called an anti-Semite and being accused of "spreading Zionist lies." These contradictions, he says, indicates that "maybe, just maybe" he is onto something.

He then brings up a passage from Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus where Spartacus is asked why he continues to fight when his slave rebellion was doomed to fail from the start. Spartacus answers by saying that freedom itself is worth fighting for and that no matter how the rebellion ends, it will have been a victory. Zizek says his book was written in very much the same spirit.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Sublime Object of Ideology - Preface

One thing I like to do in my free time is read philosophy. I've started reading a book called The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek. I read another one of Zizek's books a few weeks ago and if Sublime Object is anything like that book, this is going to be a tough read. So I thought it would be an interesting project to try and summarize the book while I'm reading it. This will help me understand it better and maybe help others too. I will start with the Preface:

Zizek begins by outlining two different kinds of revolutions. The first he calls Ptolemization (named after Ptolemy who invented earth-centered astronomy). This is when a theory is modified due to newly discovered facts, but its basic premise stays the same. He says string theory is a Ptolemization because it still relies on basic ideas of physics like the existence time and space. Terms like "post-industrial society" and "informational society" are Ptolemizations too because he says they still rely on the "'old paradigm' of classic sociological models".

The second revolution (the cool one!) he calls Copernican revolution (named after Copernicus who discovered that the Earth is actually *not* at the center of the universe).
This is when the basic fundamental framework of a theory undergoes a radical change and turns into something completely new. When something you've always taken for granite is turned upside down. Like if we discovered one day that the Earth was just one giant reality TV show watched by aliens all over the universe (like in that South Park episode).

The goal of the book, he says, is to prove that psychoanalysis (Zizek's field of study) is not a mere Ptolemization of psychology, but a philosophical Copernican revolution. He says that this attempt may seem destined for failure, but "as Lacan taught us [(Zizek is a devout follower of Lacan, a French psychoanalyst)], when we are confronted with an apparently clear choice, sometimes the correct thing to do is choose the worst option." I think this means that in order learn or discover something new, you sometimes have to take the road less traveled.

He then explains Hegel's (Zizek talks about Hegel, a German philosopher, a lot too) notion of "sublation", or Aufhebung. This is when you take a particular thing and create an abstract idea of it by picking out its most important characteristics and throwing away the rest. For example, when you think of an apple, you might think "sweet fruit", but you never think "falls to the floor when dropped". By doing this, the richness and fullness and infinite complexity of life is lost, but Hegel says this is not a bad thing.

Hegel says that Understanding is when you have these abstract ideas in your head, but are also aware that this infinite reality exists. He contrasts this with what he calls Reason which is when you actually replace the infinite reality with the abstract understanding (an apple becomes simply a "sweet fruit" and nothing else).

Zizek then describes an experiment conducted in the 1960s. In the experiment, a group of five year olds were asked to draw a picture of themselves playing at home. After the group had been through a year and a half of primary school, they were asked to do it again. The pictures the five year olds drew were colorful and lively, but the pictures they drew later were more rigid and subdued, with many students choosing to use only a gray pencil instead of other colors. These results were interpreted as proof that schooling oppresses the happiness and creativity of children. But Zizek says that Hegel would have disagreed with this conclusion. Hegel would have said that this movement from the "'green' immediacy of life to its 'grey' conceptual structure" is a sign of spiritual progress. Hegel says that a "rigidity of being" allows for a strong sprit to develop. The fact that the children are using grey pencils is in fact a sign of their positive spiritual development, not oppression.

Further explaining Aufhebung, Zizek brings up the idea of "potentiality". When choosing which properties of a thing to abstract it by, one ought to choose the ones which best highlight its inner potential. When you call something a "cup", for example, you are saying that you intend on using it for drinking water. Calling it a "chalice", however, means you intend on using it for drinking holy wine.

He then suggests that Aufhebung is a lot like digestion. By eating something, your body digests it and extracts only the parts it wants. However, Zizek says that a common criticism of this idea is that in reality, the system is "constipated" (gotta love this metaphor). You digest something, but the whole, that infinite reality, Zizek says, is actually still there (it doesn't get discarded or...ahem...excreted). Zizek takes a jab at Christianity by saying that it's not a surprise that Hegel was a Christian--the act of eating communion wafers, which are "bread transubstantiated into Christ's flesh" (in the Catholic faith anyway), implies that the Christian arrogantly believes he can "digest God himself without remainder."

Zizek then talks about this idea of how, when a particular idea reaches maturity, it "freely releases itself into nature" and by doing this, is actually doing the opposite--liberating itself from nature. He gives the example of Jesus Christ who God freely released into our world and later rose into Heaven. He also says that modern art fits into this mold as well. Traditional art focuses on reproducing reality as accurately as possible (landscapes, portraits, etc). But modern art, being a sort of "matured" art, he says, no longer needs to constrain itself to reality (Cubism is one example of a modern art form).

Then, going back to the digestive metaphor (yay!), Zizek concedes that "shitting" is a necessary part of Aufhebung. Without it, we would be overwhelmed with the infinity of which we swallowed (and have an awful stomach ache). Taking the metaphor further (more poop talk!), he says that the excrement can serve as "manure" from which further ideas can grow. I think this means that you shouldn't let bad ideas discourage you--you will have many bad ideas before you have a good one.

Zizek also talks about various philosophers' opinions on God. Kant says that just because you can imagine something, doesn't make it real. I can have an idea of what it's like to have $1,000 in my pocket without ever having that much money. It's the same way with God, Kant says--I can have an idea of what God is like, but he still may not exist. Zizek questions the strength of this metaphor because the idea of money is not objective--its value depends on inflation, etc. It's possible that $1,000 in a few years may buy you nothing more than a meal at McDonald's. Money depends on people believing that is has value--after all, it's only metal and paper.

Hegel, Zizek says, disagrees with this by saying the "money in your pocket" metaphor does not work for non-material entities like God. Because of this, Hegel doubts that Kant possesses a fully developed concept of what God "really" is.

Anselm, another philosopher, says that God is simply so alien, so other-worldly, so beyond our comprehension, that it's impossible for our puny little human brains to truly understand Him. Hegel does not like this explanation because it's not an explanation at all. Anselm doesn't make any attempt to actually define God--he defines God as being undefinable.

Zizek then says that things exist materially only when they fail to meet certain requirements. So this means that the existence of material reality is a sign of imperfection. Maybe Zizek is saying here that God, the creator of this material reality, is imperfect or that this world was an accident?

Zizek says Hegel can be applied to the ecological movement we're seeing take shape ("green" this, "green" that). Hegel says that the desire man feels to control and dominate nature is a sign of man's finitude. Man sees nature as an "external object, an opposing force to be dominated." By bringing this up, I think Zizek is saying that in order to avert an ecological catastrophe (like global warming altering the climate enough to threaten human survival), we must work with nature, not against it.