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Tarrying With the Negative

Wily intellectual Slavoj Žižek considers the catastrophic

Okan Arabacioglu

By Michael Corbin | Posted 7/28/2010

Staring into the live feed from BP's remotely operated vehicles 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, I see the figurative language of our end. Spewing fossil fuel from the Macondo well--appropriately named by its prospectors for Gabriel García Márquez's doomed town in One Hundred Years of Solitude--the otherworldly luridness, the herky-jerky and freeze-frame of the broadband stream, the primary color bars of the test signal and the occasional black emptiness, this is our YouTubed mushroom cloud. This is our end time; no bang, no whimper, but rather a live media event, a streaming, Twittered apocalypse served up with an occasional species extinction and tar balls on the beach.

Slavoj Žižek's new Living in the End Times (Verso) is a necessary primer for those who would like to reboot their imaginations and, perhaps, begin to see beyond the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon to what our globalized, capitalist culture has wrought and whether there really is something, anything else over the horizon. Žižek is no Old Testament prophesying doomsayer, but rather a diagnostician of the attenuated capacities of our imagination.

"[I]t is easier," Žižek writes, borrowing from the literary theorist Fredric Jameson, "to imagine a total catastrophe that ends all life on earth than it is to imagine real change in capitalist relations." With a trademark mordancy, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic from the University of Ljubljana points to the world leaders at the December 2009 global climate conference in Denmark as representative of all of us who "are unwilling and/or unable to control and regulate capital even when the survival of the human race is at stake."

Žižek is a strange hybrid, particularly in American intellectual life: a celebrity-philosopher, a self-described Marxist and communist (with all appropriate qualifications) who ran for president of Slovenia as a liberal democrat, a prolific author of obscure texts, a Lacanian psychoanalyst who ransacks and gropes through everything from popular culture to philosophic esoterica, mapping human perversities and possibilities.

"He is very much a thinker for our turbulent, high speed, information-led lives" Sophie Fiennes told The Guardian in a June 27 story about casting Žižek as the star of her 2006 documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. "Precisely because he insists on the freedom to stop and think hard about who you are as an individual in this fragmented society."

To show us who we are now in the face of potential apocalypse, Žižek organizes his book around Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's metaphorically well-worn five stages of grief. He writes:

The first reaction is one of ideological denial: there is no fundamental disorder; the second is exemplified by explosions of anger at the injustices of the new world order; the third involves attempts at bargaining (“if we change things here and there, life could perhaps go on as before”); when the bargaining fails, depression and withdrawl set in; finally, after passing through this zero-point, the subject no longer perceives the situation as a threat, but as the chance of a new beginning—or, as Mao Zedong put it: “There is great disorder under the heaven, the situation is excellent.”

End Times is not a therapeutic program manual for getting the mind, soul, or body politic together to ward off the end; rather the book is an at times willfully recondite work of continental philosophy that some readers may dismiss as just so much postmodern clap-trap. Who is this clown Žižek with a sideways irony claiming Mao and proposing the solidarity of the trans-human freaks of the TV series Heroes and the last work of Kafka, "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk" as some kind of guide to survival?

It will be unfortunate if End Times merely languishes as just so much humanities graduate student pornography or the whipping boy of the punditocracy and various academicians. Žižek's hyperactive philosophizing is bracing precisely because we do face an end, and we really do not appear to know what to do. Today's leaders, institutions, and social systems appear completely outmatched when they are not positively pushing us closer to the edge.

In addition to various ecological catastrophes, Žižek proposes three other "riders of the apocalypse." There are the "consequences of biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions."

We are in denial. Žižek points to some usual opiates of the masses here--Hollywood blockbusters--but he also provides a trenchant critique of all the various forms of what he calls "New Age obscurantism" that pervade culture. We are angry. Here, most significantly, Žižek provides a way into understanding the pathological global explosion of religious fundamentalism; from America's messianic militiamen to the "Allahu Akbar" of the suicide bomber. We bargain. Žižek writes of fantasies of green shopping, cap-and-trade, and the two-party system's three-card monte. We are depressed. We all now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, we live in the tape-loop of our nightmare. It's 10 o'clock, do you know where your children are and whether they will be the last generation on Earth or the last one to know what "all men are created equal" really stood for?

Žižek writes that End Times is a "book of struggle." He translates the meaning of struggle from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:12: "Our struggle is not against actual corrupt individuals, but against those in power in general, against their authority, against the global order and the ideological mystifications which sustain it."

When Kafka was dying of tuberculosis and writing his final story, he said to his friend Gustav Janouch that "we set ourselves above nature. We are not content to die and to survive merely as members of a species. Each of us wishes to preserve and possess his life for as long as possible as an individual organism. This is a rejection, by which we forfeit life."

Like Kafka, End Times offers a path to the final stage, acceptance. An acceptance not of our potential death in the present age, but a rejection of the collective end that we tilt toward.

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