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.

No comments:

Post a Comment