The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Photo: Matt Carr/Getty Images
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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.

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:

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

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia