First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
Slavoj Zizek has, several times and with increasing emphasis, made it clear what he believes to be the purpose of philosophy: not to answer questions, but ask better ones. Too often this insight is ignored. Critics ceaselessly draw attention to his personal charisma, his “innovative” blend of psychoanalysis and Hegelianism, and his prolific output, all at the cost of taking him seriously as a philosopher. This has resulted in a few time-wasting activities for Zizek himself; if he only took less trouble responding to critics who don’t know how to read him anyway and instead focused on doing anything other than not repeating himself, he might in fact find himself with fewer critics. His latest book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, is a step in the right direction. Unlike his longer (and more provocative) “revolutionary” opus In Defense of Lost Causes, this new work is concise and largely void of self-repetition. Most of it, as could be expected, can be found in YouTube videos of his recent lectures or in leftwing magazines, but he has done a good job of piecing its various theses together into a cohesive whole. It is a satisfying and promising rebirth for Zizek.
The crux of First as Tragedy is a familiar one in Zizek’s post-9/11 polemics: liberalism has failed, and communism must replace it. The tone is rarely apocalyptic, which has always been a pleasant characteristic of Zizek’s prose, but it is more urgent than usual. After all, it deals with “two events which mark the beginning and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century: the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the financial meltdown of 2008.” In fact the latter is dealt with far more extensively than the former. It takes two deaths for an idea really to die, Zizek claims, paraphrasing Marx, who himself was commenting on Hegel: first, there is the tragic, impossible event, and then its absurd repetition. Liberalism has died twice in such a fashion. For Zizek, this, as everything else, is an opportunity for counterintuitive proclamations of the sort he’s been coming up with since The Sublime Object of Ideology: “[It] would be more appropriate to describe contemporary cynicism as representing an exact inversion of Marx’s formula: today, we only imagine that we do not ‘really believe’ in our ideology…” We live in a fantasy world sustained by capital, and capital itself lives in a fantasy sustained by us. Nothing new here. However, the book evolves into a startling defense of radical leftism by virtue of its many fresh examples and observations. Relying far less than usual on Lacan and Hegel, Zizek instead tackles his subject head-on and with very few resorts to the (by now tacky) Zizekian reference to pop culture.
As usual, the revival of the notion of ideology is central: “On account of its all-pervasiveness, ideology appears as its own opposite, as non-ideology, as the core of our human identity underneath all the ideological labels.” As disdainful of the politically correct soft left as of the “Berlusconian barbarism with a human face”, Zizek argues for something that would frighten most Americans, in fact most Westerners: a return to radical leftist politics, revolution, even terror. Anything, that is, to kill the hegemonic power of capital. “A true Left takes a crisis seriously, without illusions, but as something inevitable, as a chance to be fully exploited.” The enemy is liberalism, not right-wing populism (itself merely a symptom of “liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat”). Any political system that accepts the basic tenets of capitalism, such as socialism, is to be attacked more viciously than the right, because it poses a greater threat to communism.
In one of the book’s most incisive passages, Zizek explains why the West often wins even when it loses. The loss of its colonies, for instance, marks a victory for the West because in giving them up it imposes its social form on the decolonized nations, the idea of “an independent nation-state”, a “return to roots”, and so on. Zizek is remarkably unsentimental and uncondescending towards the third world, and this is a rare quality. He does not stoop to moralizing about the white man’s responsibilities towards the oriental Other. At the same time, he presents interesting evidence that the West has far too great an influence on the rest of the world. He does this not out of moral outrage, but, one suspects, out of annoyance and impatience – and this lends a genuine feel to his writing that is lacking in the work of many other cultural theorists. His ridicule of the Western notion of “happiness” is a good example: in Bhutan, a survey indicated that “the main concerns were identified as psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, living standards, community vitality, and ecological diversity…” Zizek adds: “this is cultural imperialism, if ever there was.”
And he is no doubt right. In giving such concrete examples, he lets us see for ourselves the effect we have on faraway nations. It is this that makes First as Tragedy a compelling little book. As Zizek himself is obviously aware, too much abstraction is a turnoff to the lay reader. His previous “lesser” work, like The Plague of Fantasies and For They Know Not What They Do, occasionally suffered from large amounts of abstract theorizing that proved overwhelming for the average reader. First as Tragedy will no doubt rank as minor Zizek in years to come, being so topical and, relatively speaking, relying so little on theory, but it strikes a harmonious balance between high philosphy and approachable social commentary. This means that Zizek’s revolutionary project is bound to attract a larger audience as time goes by.
This book asks as many questions as it answers, a trait typical in Zizek’s corpus. This isn’t a bad thing, because spoon-feeding people revolutionary maxims is nowhere near as effective as leaving your readers outraged at the end of your book, and forcing them to come up with their own solutions to pressing dilemmas. By Zizek’s standards, then, the book must be a success. I’m still not sure exactly how he wants us to go about destabilizing the capitalist monster, but I’m more willing to think about it than I was before reading First as Tragedy. If he were more prescriptive, Zizek would lose much of his power.