:: Article

Challenging the comfort of the Left

By Joe Kennedy.


Slavoj Žižek, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, Verso, 2009

Between 1999 and 2001, Korean installation artist Kimsooja produced eight videos of six minutes and thirty-three seconds, designed to loop simultaneously in a gallery under the collective title Needle Woman. Each recording depicts the filmmaker standing motionless, turned away from the camera, in the middle of a busy pavement or thoroughfare in a major city. In Mexico City and Cairo, the obstruction presented by Kimsooja and her apparatus occasions exasperation and even hostility; in Lagos, she attracts a crowd of curious teenagers. London and New York, however, barely register her intervention into the routines that, for want of a better word, might be labelled ‘quotidian’, precisely because such interferences constitute the everyday in the financial and cultural nuclei of the west. The presumption that small-scale disruptive gestures compel a meaningful inversion of entrenched hegemonies seems quaint within a context where even the most transparently self-interested nemeses of the left (Coca Cola; McDonalds; Nike) have developed – or even cultivated – an addiction to brand-images which foreground whim, spontaneity, camaraderie, eco-biological conscience, and do-it-yourself worthiness.

Slavoj Žižek’s latest book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce doesn’t explicitly peg its argument on the idea that ideology’s latest piece of chameleonism has seen it don the plaid shirt of a specious artiness, but the thought is never distant:

The new spirit of capitalism triumphantly recuperated the egalitarian and anti-hierarchical rhetoric of 1968, presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations characteristic of both corporate capitalism and Really Existing Socialism – a new libertarian spirit epitomized by dressed down ‘cool’ capitalists such as Bill Gates and the founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Contrary to the oft-repeated idea that his work yields no clear thesis, Žižek’s proposal here is absolutely straightforward: that the War on Terror (the ‘tragedy’ of his title) and the subsequent financial crisis and bank bailouts (the ‘farce’) cannot be addressed adequately by the liberalism which nominates itself as the last remaining well-intentioned politics after the Cold War. Reading the present-day left’s conspicuous dilemmas as outcomes of its neutralisation by and within the structures of a (superficially) ‘soft’ capitalism, he insists forcefully that, irrespective of the last decade’s exposure of the shoddy utopianism of End of History narratives, ‘most people today are [still] Fukuyamean’.

This idea is at least implicit in all of Žižek’s recent writing, but the real strength of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce is to present the problem in a fashion that uncovers the extent of disinclined complicity in this apparently belated Fukuyamism. Obvious targets are hung out to dry, but the polemic effects a parallel criticism of the way in which the moderate left’s making of Bush, Rumsfeld et al into straw men has deflected attention away from the unjustness of the system itself. It isn’t so much the case, Žižek insists, that ‘bad’ politicians embody an isolable malfunction on the part of liberal democracy than that they are symptomatic of its systemic putridity. Critique levelled towards the individual politician, party, avaricious banker, overpaid sportsperson, or undeserving celebrity functions only as carnival in the Roman sense, namely in that it composes an impermanent ‘reordering’ or safety-valve mechanism which is structurally indispensable to the maintenance of the social formation in question.

It’s predictable, then, that one of the sites in which this account provokes so much apprehension is the media of the near left. Reliant for its marketable ‘alterity’ on the adoption of a safely oppositional cultural and political line, and concurrently rattled by the decampment of unqualified dissent to the internet, the liberal press has sought to bring Žižek onboard by representing him as an avuncular, if ideologically anachronistic, film theorist whose crowning achievement lies in having managed to become Lacanian while still entangled in the Dinaric fold of the Iron Curtain. Surreally, his success is imagined as coextensive with the advance of the free market (and an adjunctively attendant free speech) into Central and Eastern Europe, a vision which hinges on some hilariously wishful thinking. In offering Žižek up as if he were simply a fugitive from communist totalitarianism whose screwball analyses of Hollywood’s most overblown output conveniently offer a necessary check to the potential excesses of capitalism, his most intriguing critical thrust remains obscure to the large section of the public whose only points of contact with theory are broadsheet reviews.

The neutralisation-through-selective-hearing of Žižek’s agon with liberalism is especially significant within the context of the current global recession, which has – particularly in Europe, and even more specifically in the region of his birth – seen the politics of grievance monopolised by right-wing populism. This shift, which betrays ‘a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of [a] situation, has been an unsettling trend of grassroots politics in recent years, and has frustrated commentators who fail to see why many members of the working class have chosen to stigmatise immigrants and ethnic minority communities while seeming to remain insensible to the pantomime malevolence of the privileged targets of liberal opprobrium. Titling one of the book’s two sections ‘It’s Ideology, Stupid’, Žižek’s unpacking of this uniquely post-Millenial political moribundity exposes the blame-laying of liberalism as the other side of populist resentment’s coin, and frames the strategies of limited disruption and scapegoating favoured by the contemporary left as a repeated misapprehension of the abstract character of the ‘Capital [which] is the Real of our lives, a Real whose imperatives are much more absolute than even the most pressing demands of our social and natural reality’. Packaging Žižek and his work as a carnivalesque intervention, a breath of fresh air in an unsatisfactory political climate which we must nevertheless accept as historically inevitable, might be fashionable, but it’s a gesture which First As Tragedy, Then As Farce determinedly resists.


Joe Kennedy is Postdoctoral Lecturing Fellow in the School of Literature and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 30th, 2009.