Worst of all worlds: late capitalist materialism and the unending cycles of Slavoj Žižek

Absolute Recoil and Trouble in Paradise, the latest additions to the Žižekian corpus, are recycled radicalism - and fail to see beyond capitalism's hold.

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Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism
Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 444pp, £20

Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism
Slavoj Žižek
Allen Lane, 240pp, £16.99

Towards the end of Slavoj Žižek’s Trouble in Paradise, a provocative diagnosis of the malaise of liberal capitalism, the philosopher and cultural theorist offers a conception of the authentic radical. Such a figure, he writes, is less a creative genius than “an apostle who just embodies and delivers a truth – he just goes on and on repeating the same message . . . and although it may appear that nobody follows him, everyone believes him”. Those familiar with Žižek as a writer and speaker may find it hard not to hear a hint of ironic self-portraiture in this image of the compulsively repetitious apostle.

There is an echo here also of the figure of the “undead”, one of Žižek’s abiding preoccupations. In the physically and theoretically much denser Absolute Recoil, he writes of the zombies and vampires that today fill our movie, game console and e-reader screens as manifesting “the obscene persistence of life just going on” that psychoanalysis calls the “death drive”.

Reading Žižek’s Stakhanovite output over the 26 years since the publication of The Sublime Object of Ideology, one could be forgiven for wondering if this undeadness isn’t the model, conscious or not, for his fevered productivity (he published no fewer than six sole-authored books in 2014) – less the overflowing inspiration of the creative genius than the work of an automaton on an unending loop. The Žižekian corpus reads increasingly like a philosophic iPod Shuffle, recirculating the same repertory of jokes, analyses, interpretations and provocations in different sequences and combinations.

However, to take Žižek to task for plagiarising himself may be missing the point. Yes, many passages from Absolute Recoil, itself replete with long passages from earlier titles, reappear in Trouble in Paradise – but is this not the exemplary performance of the apostolic voice that never stops speaking? Admittedly it is hard to imagine a live speaker with a less zombie-like persona. The excitable fluency, ursine congeniality and gleeful readiness to provoke and offend all feed the sense of authentic spontaneity and energy that has made Žižek something like European philosophy’s punk icon, packing out auditoriums around the world.

But Žižek has been cautioning us for a long time to be suspicious of authentic spontaneity and has endeavoured to show us that every manifestation of life is secretly conditioned by its obverse. This is the essential and obsessively iterated point of Absolute Recoil. The term is Hegel’s (absoluter Gegenstoss) and describes “the radical coincidence of opposites in which the action appears as its own counteraction . . . in which the negative move (loss, withdrawal) itself generates what it ‘negates’”.

Where, in the standard reading of Hegel, one element comes into conflict with another external to it, in Žižek’s reading, conflict is internal or “immanent” to the first element. The resulting paradox is that an action becomes the result (rather than the cause) of its counteraction. To take the best-known example in Hegel, the master discovers that the slave is not his other but the condition of his status as master – that he is the master only by virtue of his dependence on (or enslavement to) the slave. The precariousness of the master’s identity lies in how he can be master only by virtue of not being master (as Arctic Monkeys put it in an album title, referencing Alan Sillitoe, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not). Take Žižek: a celebrated public intellectual who seems to embody the free effusion of irrepressible humanity may be generated by his inhuman, mechanical obverse, the repetitious apostle, who, like the anonymous voices of late Beckett, just goes on and on.

The logic of absolute recoil is that conflict is an ontological condition from which there can be no escape: “The position of Wisdom is that the Void brings ultimate peace, a state in which all differences are obliterated; the position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the Void.” Where “Wisdom” imagines a pure and undisturbed “Origin” that precedes the state of antagonism, dialectical materialism refutes the possibility of such an origin.

You may be wondering where this obscure metaphysics joins up with Žižek’s infamous political interventions. The notion of a void without peace cuts across different levels of social and psychological experience. In the workaholic culture of late capitalism, withdrawal, laziness and inertia become “the elementary form of resistance”. As the popularity of so-called “mindfulness” techniques in the corporate workplace indicates, the notion of a blissful inner peace is fully compatible with the demand for productivity and output.

The exhausted and precarious life engendered by our accelerated culture is, in reality, experienced as a void without peace. But this inner restlessness enables the dispossessed subjects of our “worldless” consumer culture to become potential agents of “emancipatory struggle”.

In a culture that holds us captive to permanent and meaningless activity, the real imperative is to resist seduction by the siren of what Žižek calls pseudo-activity, “the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’, to mask the Nothingness of what goes on”.

The diagnosis of our inertia becomes the basis for a brutally unsentimental politics in which all voluntary commitments are mere ruses of ideology. Following the French philosopher Alain Badiou, his friend and interlocutor, Žižek insists on the revolutionary moment as an unpredictable “Event”. Change cannot be agitated by the active agent of traditional politics. On the contrary, “The change will be most radical if we do nothing.” The attempt to make things happen can only ever entrench the order it claims to be contesting, whereas by waiting passively we open ourselves to being swept up in an authentic event.

“Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” As though to affirm this aphorism, which ended his 2008 book Violence, Žižek takes pains to show how the renunciation of action authorises “Leninist” ruthlessness. The “struggle” in Syria, for example, which at a conservative estimate has claimed 200,000 lives and resulted in tens of thousands tortured, is “a conflict towards which one should remain indifferent” on account of the absence of “a strong radical-emancipatory opposition”. The brutality of the argument is expressed in the dreary rhetoric of the sectarian far left – the opposite of the energy and irony that characterise Žižek’s best writing.

One of the many fine asides in Absolute Recoil is an adumbration of the devitalising, parasitic role of techno-gadgets in contemporary life in terms of the 1994 Jim Carrey film The Mask. The magically transformative mask, Žižek suggests, enables a reversion to the cartoon world with which Carrey’s character is obsessed, “an undead universe without sex or guilt, a universe of infinite plasticity in which every time a character is destroyed it magically recomposes itself and the struggle goes on”.

Žižek’s pronouncements on our political predicaments often seem animated by the same fantasies of making and unmaking the world with brazen unconcern for the consequences. Surely it is only in such a spirit of cartoonish indifference that a serious thinker could open a sentence with the phrase: “Even Nazi anti-Semitism . . .” Restoring the phrase to the full sentence does nothing to redeem it. “Even Nazi anti-Semitism, however ghastly it was, opened up a world: it described its critical situation by positing an enemy, which was ‘a Jewish conspiracy’; it named a goal and the means of achieving it.” This is in contrast to the corrosiveness of capitalism, which deprives “the large majority of people of any meaningful ‘cognitive mapping’”. In other words: yes, it may have been ghastly but at least with Nazi anti-Semitism you knew where you were.

I wish that this summary translation were mere flippancy but it is depressingly precise. The grim prospect of “non-eventful survival in a hedonist-utilitarian universe” licenses Žižek to prefer even the most catastrophic political experiment to our current set-up. As he writes: “Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state.”

I might have been able to swallow this provocation if it were at least coherent with the broader philosophical argument. In the more interventionist, less theoretical Trouble in Paradise, Žižek insists that liberal capitalism is the worst of all possible worlds because it closes up all the gaps through which its inconsistencies could be made visible. The premise of Absolute Recoil, however, is that such total closure is impossible, regardless of which political regime we are subject to. As speaking beings, our efforts to represent ourselves always fail and it is this failure, this gap between ourselves and our symbolic resources, that “gives us space to breathe”. Were it otherwise, he rightly notes, we would be “reduced to being puppets of the big Other”.

Should one really have to point out that without this breathing space (which was in rather short supply during even the “best” years of Stalinism), Žižek couldn’t have written these or any other books? Our “worldless” capitalism evidently contains within itself sufficient breathing space to note and analyse its injustices and contradictions and this surely attests to the obscenity of those unfavourable comparisons with the “worst of Stalinism” and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Žižek’s contention in Trouble in Paradise is that our liberal-capitalist civilisation, for all its injunctions to enjoy ourselves, is devoid of genuine love and life. Yet there is nothing in Žižek’s brutal and peculiarly thin political vision to persuade his reader that life on the other side of capitalism, for which he lies impassively in wait, will be any more fun.

Read Slavoj Žižek’s response to this article here

Josh Cohen is the chair of judges for the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize. He will be appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 April: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War