The Raconteur against Recuperation
By Joe Kennedy.
Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, Verso, 2010.
Žižek. Žižek, Žižek, Žižek. The attractively fricative name demands repetition, prompting an echo chamber effect which inspires thoughts of John Cusack’s turn as man dizzily infatuated with the titular character of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. That film, we might say with a decade’s hindsight, staged millenial jitteriness as to what kinds of narrative might be suitable to a world in which ‘real’ history’s emphatic jolts had been shoved aside by the representations of the mass media. Could stories continue to be told in a milieu where historical and political motion were claimed to have been arrested in the shape of a centrist consensus by the collapse of communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe? Had the terms ‘action’ and ‘acting’ become indistinguishable? Of course, 9/11 took place soon after, and Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman’s next collaboration was on 2002’s Adaptation, which wheeled out the unrepentantly naturalist script guru Robert McKee to insist vituperatively that any attempt to deny that stories still happened could be nothing but the self-pitying, even callous, lament of the uninventive. Now, the problem of what contemporary history amounts to is a particularly pertinent one. Living in the End Times, like Žižek’s recent brief polemic First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, sets out to address the emotional, political, and psychological crises occasioned by the War on Terror and the Credit Crunch, making a robust – if frequently labyrinthine – case for rebutting postmodernist announcements of a post-historical age.
Surfing the present economic pandemonium, Žižek has attained a Malkovich-like ubiquity as the antagonist to those who would contend that time has been called on history. At the slightest hint of Fukuyamist thinking he’s there, describing hitherto-unimagined antitheses to what had been regarded by too many as history’s definitive coda and revealing the poster boys of liberalism as Lex Lutheran bad guys who deploy images of post-political utopias in pursuit of private financial interests. Now, though, Žižek himself proclaims the end, or an end. Indeed, the book imitates the familiar trajectory of grieving described by the Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Five main chapters entitled ‘Denial’, ‘Anger’, ‘Bargaining’, ‘Depression’, and ‘Acceptance’, supplemented by shorter considerations of architecture and cinema, demonstrate structurally that our age is one in which conclusions must be confronted.
What are the dimensions of the Žižekian end, then? Living in the End Times certainly acknowledges that we are the subjects of a mode of finality, but produces a Marxian account of this as a concoction of pending environmental disaster, systems of production and exchange imploding under the weight of their own deviousness, and a bereftness of radical thought on the part of the mainstream left. Pointedly, this isn’t a triumphal declaration of market-based liberalism’s inexorable superiority comparable to those made by the right-wing Hegelians of neo-con academia. Here, we’re positioned as observers as the sun sets on the intellectual epoch kicked off by Hegel, witnesses who must now return to his thought, genned up on Marx and Lacan, in order to confront circumstances whose absolutely novel repatterning is marked by nothing so much as a terrorising sense of acceleration. Committed as ever, through his unexpected use of jokes, zanily incongruous pop cultural references, and shaggy dog anecdotes, to estranging the reader from late capitalism’s alleged comforts, Žižek’s task is to galvanise the reader’s imagination into becoming the motor force of a politics equal to the unprecedented knottiness of globalisation and ecocatastrophe.
Amidst its superficially wacky digressions through post-millenial cultural detritus, Living in the End Times bears an operative argument, but it is one that only finds brazen statement in the form of a citation from Žižek’s earlier work In Defence of Lost Causes. There, illustrating ‘Lacan’s mathematics’ in the shape of a political assertion, he stated that ‘Today […] the true antagonism is not between liberal multiculturalism and fundamentalism, but between the very field of their opposition and the excluded Third (radical emancipatory politics).’ In other words, conflicts like the one between the socially liberal factions in the USA and the Ann Coulters and Glenn Becks who oppose them mutually sustain both parties whilst occluding the existence of genuinely radical, redistributive avenues. Everything else Living in the End Times does – its dirty-handed analyses of Hollywood excreta such as Kung-Fu Panda, its celebration of ‘exaptative’ traits in modern architecture, its various strip-shows of the manner in which capitalist ideology naturalises exploitation through its media technologies – occurs as a corollary of this pre-established position. A contretemps about the respective badness of either progressive liberalism or chauvinism, be it religious or nationalistic, presents for Žižek a purely spectacular event which functions to dismiss the possibility of a discussion about the more complex structure of the ‘true antagonism’.
An example: discussing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Žižek becomes interested in what he calls the ‘humanization’ of the superhero. Batman has never gone untroubled by inner turmoil, but Christian Bale’s portrayal pushes this complexity towards an oddly cod-psychological notion of authenticity. For Žižek – who has much in common with novelist Michel Houellebecq on this point – authenticity, or humanised ‘depth’, is what contemporary capitalism offers in lieu of political truth, which could only ever amount to the wholesale confession of systemic exploitation. Living in the End Times doesn’t deal with the fun-free, pompously begrimed rebooting of James Bond, but Quantum of Solace would illustrate this point beautifully. In QOS, Bond’s torment over the death of Vesper Lynd is offered as rationale, leaving us with a fleshed-out, plausibly motivated character in place of the cartoonish playboy that had hitherto represented the franchise. New Bond is authentically human and, more importantly, the locus of ethical anguish about his role as a political instrument. Such psychologisation has been broadly welcomed in the anglophone world’s liberal media, which misses no opportunity to stick the boot into instances of Hollywood ‘two-dimensionality’. Applying Žižek’s logic, though, humanisation attributes to capitalism a capacity to think ethically, a capacity which makes the overt use of brutality (such as Bond’s willingness to torture adversaries for information) appear as a reluctantly-used technique which ensures the wellbeing of a historically-necessary system. The film’s conflict is between the ‘bad’, insatiable capitalism of Quantum and the inclusive, restrained capitalism represented by a Bond who is simultaneously more conscientious and more violent. No space remains for ‘radical, emancipatory politics’.
As a raconteur whose theme is the pervasiveness of ideology, Žižek is great company. Like the best storytellers, he’s acutely aware of when to put the wind up his audience. An extended, irony-free analogy between the Joseph Fritzl case and the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music showcases this talent tremendously. Žižek states that ‘The Sound of Music is the ultimate kitsch phenomenon, and what Fritzl created in his basement also displays features of a realised kitsch family life.’ The inconvenient truth here runs something like this: if history has ended, allowing us to respond emotionally only to previously-realised forms of organisation, what kinds of violence might manifest themselves in nostalgic recreations of an ‘innocent’ past? Implicitly, the essentialising post-historical logic which equates radical politics with brutality is countered by the assertion that civilised, late capitalist society is itself grounded upon violence which it manages either by burying it deep within images of a healthy norm or ironising it out of view. A version of this point goes back at least to Louis Althusser, but Žižek’s particular talent lies in setting out absolutely contemporary concrete examples of ideology’s formal operation. Some complain about his almost ludicrously prolific output, but it may well be essential for him to maintain this rate of production in order to keep abreast of the ever-more frequent metamorphoses of his object of analysis.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Kennedy is an academic and poet.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 16th, 2010.