Monday, October 1, 2012

Last Week's Book: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

A more fun read than some recent entries, yet not much less educational. I think I can get used to that...

September 23-29: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek

Politics (2009 - 157 pp.) 

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is Slavoj Zizek's take on the 2008 portion of the financial crisis. It is not a typical academic tract in the sense that it is littered with pop culture references, there are fewer citations, and the tone is casual. All of these make it that much more fun, and none detract from Zizek's perspective. His status as "the most dangerous philosopher in the West" (cover) is difficult to argue against when considering the contrarian nature of the book, as well as where he lays blame and the types of comparisons he draws. None of this may be surprising to a long-time Zizek reader, and I am sure he has many, but as a first-timer to his work some of his points are quite surprising. 

The viewpoint he details is stated refreshingly clearly: "What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely 'partial' one-for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason. The side taken here is, of course, that of communism." (6) Objectivity in the arts is inherently impossible anyway. That Zizek takes a communist perspective means I read a book that did not conform to my own (capitalist) take on the world, which meant I would have something to engage intellectually instead of spending 157 pages nodding my head. The first section of the book, cheekily titled "It's Ideology, Stupid!" discusses Zizek's problems with global capitalism. Among the most enlightening of his critiques is the idea that the free market is not as real as capitalists would have it but merely an illusion in the mind of its adherents that exists because they think it exists. His other points, like the idea that crises are opportunities for conservative societies to renew the citizenry's faith in the system and his discussion of political fetishism, also demonstrate the connection between left-wing thought and the concept of the world as a construct rather than as a concrete thing. A more lighthearted highlight of this first part is his comparisons of Silvio Berlusconi to the Joker of Batman fame and of capitalist ideology to Kung Fu Panda. If that last teaser fails to get you reading this book, I have no idea what else I can offer. 

The second part, "The Communist Hypothesis", is less of a critique of Zizek's opponents (I assure you there are many of them) and more of a statement of Zizek's own beliefs. Alternatively, given his leanings, they may simply be what he believes are his beliefs, or what he wants the reader to believe are his beliefs, but nonetheless it is the more positive half of the book. His position on postcolonialism is one I had never seen before, namely that the Western powers are the only countries to ever sanction themselves for callous behaviour, as opposed to the typical axe being brought down by an enemy during a war that past empires have faced. This self-inflicted guilt is something other countries resist, which explains much of their anti-Western sentiment: "This insight allows us also to detect a symmetric duplicity in the way certain Third World countries criticize the West: if the West's continuous self-excoriation functions as a desperate attempt to re-assert our superiority, the true reason why some in the Third World hate and reject the West lies not with the colonizing past and its continuing effects but with the self-critical spirit which the West has displayed in renouncing this past, with its implicit call to others to practise the same self-critical approach." (115) In effect, the moral superiority of admitting one's wrongs is a kind of ideological imperalism the West projects, which is resisted through shameless blame-laying. Aside from this insight, much of Zizek's second part focuses on the key differences between socialism and communism, the former of which requiring shunning from any self-respecting adherent of the latter. Compromises to the working class are seen by Zizek as efforts to mollify efforts toward a violent revolution, which he places as the only way to dethrone established interests in the private sector. 

The book's title refers to Zizek's notion that societies fall twice. They experience a tragedy that shakes them to their core, rebound from it with renewed ideological zeal, and then fall a second time amidst everyone being unable to take the system seriously. His two reference points of 2001, complete with tech bubble crash and 9/11, and the crisis of 2008, signals potential impending change. Then again, he states how successful Barack Obama can be as a conservative president, noting that a president needs sufficient conservative credentials to accomplish tasks like easing up on immigration and engaging supposedly hostile foreign countries. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is not so much about predicting the future, though, as it is about lampooning the present. At this, Zizek is successful, providing an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read even to those who may find his conclusions foreign to their lines of thought - or even absurd. 

Ease of Reading: 5 
Educational Content: 7

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