First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek is a storied man. Widely hailed as the Elvis or Richard Pryor of cultural theory, the Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian psychoanalyst has built a reputation for using pop cultural references to explore a host of theoretical questions. Works like “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Lacan, But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock” and The Perverts Guide to Cinema –– a film starring Zizek directed by Sophie Fiennes –– catapulted the philosopher to success beyond academia. His wild-eyed tangential analyses, robust humor, and passionate public speaking, have contributed to his reputation as one of cultural theory’s most engaging and relevant thinkers, but also its greatest clown. (Zizek has a persistent habit of violently slurping large amounts of saliva when excited.) Zizek is fully aware of the potential of his radical clowning and exploits his self-constructed “fool” or “pervert” persona in the service of social critique.
Zizek brings his trademark humor and urgency to his latest work, which borrows its title from Marx’s reinterpretation of Hegel’s theory of historical repetition: all great events and characters of world history come around again, the second time as satires of themselves. Using the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the financial meltdown of 2008 as bookends to frame his analysis of contemporary capitalism, democracy, and the failure of the left, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce whizzes through Zizek’s usual array of pop-cultural references to make the case that the outcry from both liberals and the populist right after these events has only functioned to mask larger systemic problems. Zizek wields his obsession with pop culture to articulate incisive political and social commentary; combined with his sense of humor, this can even hook readers only minutely interested in politics. This doesn’t always work in his favor, however, as his playfulness has the capacity to both amplify and degrade the seriousness of his arguments, still, in his moments of clarity, Zizek powerfully explicates how power functions.
“How is it,” he writes, “that people are literally acting counter to their own interests?” According to Zizek, the answer is not stupidity, which we hear all too often as an easy scapegoat, but the “stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves” that enable us to keep chugging along while being exploited every step of the way. In other words, if we get too caught up in the “Main Street versus Wall Street” lingo and class-specific outrage, the opportunity for substantive change may pass us by. Zizek conceives of the economic crisis as a sort of ‘rupture’, what the contemporary French philosopher Badiou would call an “event,” around which substantive political change can be organized. This subtle, yet important distinction illuminates how we often “miss the contours of what is actually New” while we’re busy adding “post-“s to all of our terminology and declaring social and cultural forms as “dead” or declaring their “return.”
There is one return, however, that First as Tragedy is quite invested in. Zizek makes it painfully clear from the get-go that he thinks a return to communism is important. Given the volatility of the American political and economic climate, Zizek ought to have an attentive audience for his argument that Western capitalist democracy is in need of substantive change. However, he undermines himself by positing no real distinction between the new and improved version of communism that he is supporting and the Soviet brand which he freely acknowledges failed. His frenetic analytical style doesn’t help much either in this regard. Zizek writes like an internet reader, blithely skipping along from interesting subject to interesting subject producing a multitude of interrelated facts and figures, that often (but not always) fail to coalesce. His arguments are often cheap because he is always eager to move onto the next one rather than dwelling on the original for long.
Despite this, Zizek grasps what is one of the central issues facing Western industrial societies today: the amorphous desire for change which is either expressed or exploited by politicians and pop-culture alike. It’s all over the movie screens with popcorn films like 2012 and propagandistic tear-jerkers like Michael Moore’s recent Capitalism: a Love Story. These latent and often convoluted desires do mean something, and Zizek reminds us that the potential for revolutionary change exists, while being careful not to negate the real power of capital. When a society is in flux a space for tyranny or revolution is always opened. Zizek thinks that we should forgo all of the abstract panic and accept a hypothetical social, economic, and ecological collapse. By mentally projecting ourselves into the future we can create strategies to help us prevent that future today.
Sort of a mental rubix cube, but decent advice.
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