July 28, 2010

Let Us Think: Reading "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce"

This is an old post (Nov 2009) of mine from a different blog, but I like the passage so much I thought I would share it again.

Zizek's most recent effort is welcomed by this peripatetic with open arms and eyes glued to the pages as I bump into strangers all over campus. Our dear old Slovenian wordsmith has always had a knack for grabbing and holding the reader's attention, only with this effort, as with his earlier writings, when I stop reading, I can recall and explain the point of what I just read. No, Zizek hasn't stopped theorizing through innumerable examples and rhetorical flourishes that some of us find distracting, albeit entertaining. 

In First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Zizek uses his familiar methods to discuss and deliver his message in all of the detail and nuance they deserve. This takes considerable effort, and many, many examples to think through. Only, in this work, all of the twists and turns seem to help his cause. Instead of talking continuously so as not to cease existing - a worry he expresses in Astra Taylor's film Zizek! - he seems genuinely impassioned. For someone wandering around the left wing with a vague sense that something needs to be done, having his genius directed toward something he seems to care so much about should prove useful, if not comforting.

For my money, and I'm not finished reading (only 20-ish pages to go!), the value of First as Tragedy for political thinking lies both in the general message that Zizek is laying out, and in the many analyses of our present situation that he offers. I want to comment only on the former at this time. His program is distinctly Communist in character, but not a naive return to a critique of the contradictions of our historical situation - which is not to say that such a critique cannot be performed.

Instead, Zizek highlights the imperative to think through the idea of Communism, an idea we must hold onto in the face of a hollowed out Democracy that applies to any and all situations. Communism, as an idea, is itself something we have to make sense of in light of our current historical situation, and not something we apply to the situation in order to make sense of the latter. The failing of the left is that even in a world where the whole political spectrum knows that something is wrong, the left, the alternative, has no clear picture of what to do in place of the status quo.

This diagnosis leaves us in a position where we want to act (that is, some of you want to act), but don't know what to do. By default, the liberal hegemony continues. This is why Zizek offers my favorite of his recent injunctions: we need to stop and think.

With incredible frequency, Politicians deliver promises that are never fulfilled through action. Granted. But, on the contrary, those politicians also act all too often without thinking. The current financial crisis is the result of something, yet instead of figuring out what and why, the governments of the global powers act - perhaps in response the their jerking knees - by throwing $700 Billion (in the US alone) at the problem, as though this will save the sinking ship.

Likewise, activists of all stripes gather in futile efforts that serve their egos and self-images more than any 'cause' which they feign to represent. Perhaps this may be overly cynical, but those activists, those young people, do little more than practice being political, even when they have good intensions. My wager is that this is because they have a confused mix of tired messages and newly born angst, but little if any thought (maybe they are lacking a procedure of truth?) guiding their efforts.

Zizek reminds us that in lieu of a well thought out program of action, and in lieu of an alternative vision of life to the one that "ended history", we ought to slow down, regroup, figure out what it means to be the left, the communists, of today, and then proceed. As a philosopher, this injunction to think is the sweetest music I've heard in a while. I'd like to suggest that we need to think about what kind of event could, and what it would mean for that event to, symbolically 'un-end' history.

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