Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
18th August 2010

Zizek’s Latest

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Living in the End Times by Slavoj Zizek:

A Book Review by John David Ebert

Despite its title, Living in the End Times actually has little to do with apocalyptic themes or eschatological scenarios. This would fall under the sphere of religious studies, and as his readers know, religion is not Zizek’s strong suit. His real strength is his particularly incisive understanding of political machinations, especially the hypocritical–or as he terms it “ideological”–manipulations of capitalism, for Zizek is an unapologetic Marxist.

But one does not read Zizek to find persuasive new arguments for why communism deserves to succeed and capitalism to fail; rather, one reads him because ‘it is the personality which counts,’ for very, very few writers are capable of coming across on the printed page with the kind of three dimensional personality of a Zizek. His wit is unsurpassed; his bullshit detector as failsafe as William Irwin Thompson’s; and he is raucously funny. He is also incredibly erudite: to read a Zizek book is tantamount to rummaging through a landscape of contemporary po-mo civilization with discussions of everything from popular movies to obscure novels to philosophical discussions of arcane points of Hegelian or Lacanian doctrine. It is evident, reading one of his books–and this is why I always look forward to reading him–that this man spends the majority of his time reading, something which is done less and less as the days go by in this disliterate electronic society.

So what, then, is the new book about? Well…

That’s the other thing with Zizek: his books aren’t really about anything. His books do not have thesis statements; they do not develop an argument; they have no coherent necessary reason for why this chapter should follow this one. Indeed, his books have about them the same qualities which he ascribes to po-mo architecture: “A weird tension and imbalance, a conflict of principles, are thus directly inscribed into the form, as if the actual building lacked a single anchoring point and perspective.” Zizek’s books are thus the literary equivalent of po-mo architecture, and are anti-academic in the extreme. In a way, they are anti-books, like Derrida’s Glas.

The book does have some kind of structure, though, since Zizek divides it up into five chapters that are thematically based on an examination of various aspects of contemporary society as viewed through the lens of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. In between each chapter there is an Interlude on a theme that is loosely (very loosely) related to the previous essay. The first essay on Denial (“Liberal Utopian Ideology”) delves into the perils of multiculturalism, including one of Zizek’s rare forays into ancient civilization, in which he discusses the differences between Confucians and Legalists in ancient China, and briefly discusses the Law Code of Manu in India. Zizek is very good in the arena of ancient thought and this chapter makes one wish that he would devote more of his time to the subject.

This chapter is followed by an Interlude on the ‘ideological battlefields’ of Hollywood, with discussions of films like The Dark Knight and I am Legend. Zizek is famous for his discussions of popular movies and he is always at his best as a cultural critic in this subject area, as he is here. Other essays, though, are less successful such as a long, drawn-out mid-book discussion of some of the major tenets of Marx and Marxism. (Yawn). But the last three chapters are the best of the book, in which he discusses the failure of a universal capitalism to interface with local, ethnically bound lifeworlds; certain elements of apocalyptic society–such as Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who was recently found guilty of keeping his daughter in a locked basement for 24 years while raping and keeping the offspring of these rapes down in the basement with her; and there is also a wonderful discussion of apocalyptic technologies such as the SixthSense, which enables one to simply point at a blank surface and project Internet information about whatever subject is in question immediately upon the suface at hand–and also a concluding chapter on the aesthetics of Marxist art, which is quite fascinating (for example, in science fiction, the collective hive mind, as in Zamyatin’s We is normally depicted as the horror to be avoided, but Zizek as a communist sees it as a sort of utopic ideal). 

It is all very entertaining, and at 400 pages, the book sails right on through with remarkably little in the way of turbulence to disturb the reader’s pleasure.  This book is Zizek at his very best, and I highly recommend it, though not for Zizek first-timers, who would do better to begin with his book Violence or The Plague of Fantasies or even his recent First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.

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