Book of the week: Living in the End Times

Fred Inglis strives to hold his nerve in the midst of a dizzying, recondite tour of the apocalypse

June 24, 2010

In Raymond Williams' fine and forgotten 1979 novel, The Fight for Manod, the dogged and incorruptible hero-Leftist says of his difficult, indurate, impassioned lieutenant (modelled, it is said, on Terry Eagleton) that "in the opposition there's only the opposition. That's why I can't be against him."

Slavoj Žižek exacts a similar allegiance. He looks down at us from the inexcusable dust-jacket photograph - black T-shirted, shaggy-bearded, punitive, haughty, implacable - and we know we are for it. The end times have come (and they have) and Žižek will leave us naught for our comfort.

His loquacity is unstoppable. Two smaller books out in the past two years, pages- and screensful of journalism, and now this: 400 pages of malediction, diagnosis, colossal knowledgeability and recondite anecdote.

Žižek's is the biggest show in the academy, a vast marquee bulging with, for sure, vitality-in-the-present, wince-making scorn for one's own footling liberalism and quite dazzling swordplay with all the famous musketeers of Paris - Alain Badiou, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, his despised rival in controversy Bernard-Henri Levy, and above all, with his master fencing partner, the always playfully obscurantist Jacques Lacan.

Given all this, given so much, it seems grudging to ask for a bit of order, for rather less of everything, for less repetitiousness and self-citation, for harder facts and tighter argument, as well as for not so loose and baggy a form in which to enclose quite so headlong and torrential a tirade. The style is the man, no doubt. But much of it (and him) is caught in the tale of a reader of this latest effort who suggested that the title might better have been: "Oh, And Another Thing... ".

As it is, end times are what we have arrived at, so Žižek dreams up a form borrowed from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five-part sequence of grief on learning that one is fatally ill. Thus, in the first section it is the ideology of liberalism that lies prone in stricken denial of its imminent mortality, while secretly Žižek reintroduces to us liberals the redemptive medicine of the dialectic and its inescapable materialism.

There is something heartening about the courage of a thinker who lived through the end times of communism in Slovenia and who is still prompt to remind his readers of the beauty in communism's primordial vision, who praises the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping for cannily introducing capitalism only at the controllable edges of the Chinese economy, who salutes (with a proper squeamishness) the achievement of the Naxalite Maoists in central India as having wrought a harsh polity out of degradation and dreadful squalor. (He mentions nothing, however, about the far greater successes of Kerala's economy under the tutelage of that impeccable social democrat, Amartya Sen.)

After a section on "Anger" and a giddy, affecting dilation on recovering the meaning of love, as well as a marvellous aside on the film The 3.10 to Yuma (1957), Žižek permits himself an "interlude" on the roots of anti-Semitism and the monstrosity of Israeli actions in Gaza (fierce, this bit, and very good; but it's what everybody thinks).

Perambulating around the globe with the large flung-out gestures of a big man not quite in charge of his body, Žižek permits himself extensive pub talk about the states of the European Union and the Irish vote against the Lisbon Treaty (he concludes it was all due to those awful bureaucrats in Brussels making everything too difficult to understand). He then tops this off with some very threadbare stuff about the impending self-destruction of the American Dream.

His turn from "Anger" to "Bargaining" (Kubler-Ross' third stage) is, in contrast, marked by so abrupt a change in register as to shake the whole edifice of the book. For Žižek, ardent and accomplished Marxicologist, now ventures an extended and timely restatement of the contemporary force and relevance of Marxism to the ruined political economies of the Western world. He adds, as Theodor Adorno taught us, psychoanalysis to the brew and, in a powerful affirmation, convinces this reader at least that the dialectical contradiction between capital and labour has been dissolved by the victory of instrumental reason.

Genially hitching a lift from J.M. Keynes, he proves the utter falsity of the adjective "free" in "free markets", and restores the "fetishization of commodities" to its central place in an economy now dominated, as Guy Debord predicted 40 years ago, by the society of the spectacle. The trouble is that this very technical interjection belongs in a quite different book, as does the extraordinary, no less technical and omniscient chapter on modern architecture and its tripartite class structure that follows.

So it's quite a jolt, then, to be landed in "Depression", and merely depressing to meet the famous analyst, Catherine Malabou, bent in aid of explaining the likelihood of mental unconsciousness even in our unconscious - hence the familiar modern figure of the human being bereft of all human feeling.

What is more, isn't Žižek surprisingly uncritical - for so argumentative a man - of Kubler-Ross' divisions of misery? What about the omitted stages of self-awareness, at least, and courage at best, for we well know that our author is not a man who lacks courage?

But by now we are braced for the apocalypse, and in it comes, leering horribly, dressed up as Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, obscene, decadent, mutated into Silvio Berlusconi, in a world in which climatic catastrophe will launch the dread horsemen, Famine, Plague, War and Death, into an uncontrollable gallop.

One not-unexpected canto of the apocalypse is Žižek's airy vision of genetic engineering and digital rapture, a passage that not only gives Craig Venter and his dreams of genomic transfiguration much more credit than the geneticists do, but permits Žižek himself more of his barmier digressions into science fiction. After that, "Acceptance", presumably of the future and the end of history, is here played to thunderous rock music (which of course he knows all about) and scary movies.

All one can do with a book such as this is walk through its crazy, gripping, crowded streets and dizzying vistas, and hold one's nerve. It is built on a weird epistemology: Lacan's psychoanalytic structuralism is void of the dialectic. It generates nothing, it answers nothing. Talking cures cannot tell us (indeed must not tell us) what to do. But Žižek's proto-Marxism is similarly immobile.

If the point of politics is not to describe the world but to change it, Žižek, the still-hopeful activist, offers no account of such action. Amazingly responsive as he is to the dark, whirling aspects of the world, he lacks all trust (in a phrase at which he sneers openly) in the common decency of people and its inextinguishable recurrence, even in those end times that will, in their turn, one day come to their end.


Slavoj Žižek was born in Slovenia while it was still part of Yugoslavia, and he found his early career hampered by the communist rulers of the state.

Fired from his first teaching post in 1973 after it was discovered that his master's thesis would be considered "non-Marxist", he then joined the Yugoslavian army and faced years of unemployment.

He returned to academia six years later at the University of Ljubljana.

Žižek campaigned passionately for the democratisation of Slovenia, and even ran unsuccessfully for president in the first free elections in 1990.

Despite his opposition to the communist state, he remained a member of the Communist Party of Slovenia until 1988. As recently as 2008 he described himself as a "communist in a qualified sense".

Living in the End Times

By Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 432pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781844675982
Published 5 July 2010

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