Lit Crit

The Year Is Almost Over—Is the World?

December 30, 2011

Multiple Pages
The Year Is Almost Over—Is the World?

Things aren’t looking too good these days, says Slavoj Zizek in his latest book, Living in the End Times.

The underlying premise of the present book is a simple one: the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its “four riders of the apocalypse” are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself…and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

What the devil could he mean by “apocalyptic zero point”—a revelation, a revolution, a shift, an exhaustion, an implosion, an explosion?

[W]e are bombarded from all sides with injunctions to recycle personal waste, placing bottles, newspapers, etc., in the appropriate bins. In this way, guilt and responsibility are personalized—it is not the entire organization of the economy which is to blame, but our subjective attitude which needs to change.

He calls it an “ideological trick,” and it’s one of the oldest in the book. As personalized guilt was a hallmark of Christianity, diffused responsibility is one of democracy’s trademarks.

“Individuals are harder to make a team of, but they are therefore harder to yoke.”

Badiou was right to claim that today the name of the ultimate enemy is not capitalism, empire, exploitation, or anything similar, but democracy itself. It is the “democratic illusion,” the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as providing the only framework for all possible change, which prevents any radical transformation of capitalist relations.

How radical were some of these so-called transformations? Were they revolutions blowing the whole thing to smithereens, seminal events setting new patterns, or merely vents allowing the system to blow some steam and keep going?

Zizek walks us through the last half-century’s successive insurrections. May ’68 failed politically but won socially with its loosening of mores. The anti-communism revolts of 1989 won politically as communism collapsed, but they lost socially. He says “the new post communist society with its combination of wild capitalism and nationalism is not what the dissidents were fighting for.” He dubs this year’s London riots as “pure irrational revolt without any program.”

Like the steam engines that launched it and that it launched, the system—call it industrial, capitalist, or democratic—is well supplied with safety valves (or in psychoanalytical terms, defense mechanisms).

After taking a line from quantum physics, Zizek compares our current situation with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—which he uses as chapter headings for his book.

Who died, though? A particular idea of what constitutes revolution? And is it such a sad thing that the hedge of piques and bayonets has turned to pointed fingers? They’re pointing rather lamely—not being as sharp, they’re not as fatal.

Will we lament that we are no longer the teeming masses? Individuals are harder to make a team of, but they are therefore harder to yoke. And their numbers are growing exponentially.

The limitation of our freedom that becomes palpable with global warming is the paradoxical outcome of the very exponential growth of our freedom and power, that is, of our growing ability to transform nature around us, up to and including destabilizing the very framework for life.

A rather limited view of freedom. If we’re looking for a culprit it must be the one who is getting fatter, not the one who is getting stronger.

Marshes are trod upon and bees are dying en masse, but one behemoth is still thriving. It is so evolved that it can breathe the most pestilential air, so resilient it can absorb any criticism. Though it is difficult to fight against, it is not too disagreeable to live in the belly of that beast.

Perhaps therein lies the fundamental “contradiction” of contemporary “postmodern” capitalism: while its logic is de-regulatory, “anti-statal,” nomadic and deterritorializing, etc., its key tendency…signals a strengthening of the State…and its legal and other apparatuses. What one can discern on the horizon is thus a society in which personal libertarianism and hedonism co-exist with (and are sustained by) a complex web of regulatory State mechanisms.

Zizek is in the thick of it, looking for signs of the future in the entrails of Islamic terrorists, Austrian pedophiles, and B movies; diagnosing with the terms of psychoanalysis and quantum physics, which states by the way “that it is impossible to simultaneously measure the present position while also determining the future motion of a particle.”

We can’t escape the forces of physics; what about the illusions of power?

[T]he lesson of the 20th century is that victory ends either in restoration (return to the state-power logic) or an infernal cycle of self-destructive purification. This is why Badiou proposes replacing purification with subtraction: instead of “winning” (taking power) one maintains a distance towards state power, one creates spaces subtracted from State.

Which brings us to literature. Julian Barnes just won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of An Ending. Like Living in the End Times, it also deals with time, history, and power. It talks of time without hubris and history of the personal sort. It also speaks of power—not so much as a paradox or a contradiction, but as a mystery because it emanates from a woman. At the end, there’s even a revelation.


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