Green tea, tragedy and a bit of the other

Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?
September 28, 2001

It is late at night in an office block. A man and a woman are copulating on a desk. They do not realise that they are being watched from the adjacent building. Suddenly the phone rings and the man picks it up. The voice at the other end says: "God is watching". The man, who is married, nearly has a heart attack. We are not told what the woman's reaction is. Slavoj Zizek's analysis of this incident, in which a friend figured as the joker making the phone call, is typical of his approach. He first gives a psychoanalytical account of an episode, and this one apparently reveals our most "elementary fantasy" of being observed. He then applies it to an aspect of the social world, here the "digitisation of our lives", arguing that it is our secret desire to be monitored rather than the government's desire to know that has led to the explosion of surveillance at work, at home and in the high street. As the symbol of the "other", the camera guarantees our being. Zizek's clever use of psychoanalysis suggests that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Zizek's main subject is how the notion of totalitarianism can be misused by liberals, critics of communism and academics. Not a topic that really screams "I am vitally important to world peace, the environment and your wellbeing, study me now!", but Zizek is an entertaining writer who would command attention if he were just describing how to mix cement. He wastes no time in tilting at the taken-for-granted, pointing out on page two that the importance cultural studies attaches to putting problems in context, while a necessary corrective to ahistorical commentary, takes no cognisance of the fact that global capitalism is supremely indifferent to those factors that make up a context, such as place, tradition and culture. McDonald's is as happy to sell burgers in Nairobi as in Newcastle. The circulation of capital "actively ignores specific conditions and cannot be rooted in them" and, for that reason, social reality is more dominated by the power of "abstraction" than it is determined by context. Later, Zizek gives a twist to this argument when he claims that our "ordinary reality" is designed to prevent us from encountering "the real trauma" that resides in the unknowable kernel of the self. Once again we find a psychoanalytical explanation underpinning a social one.

Zizek's main point of reference, in fact, is Lacan, a strange ally in the assault on totalitarianism since he was not renowned for his tolerance of others' opinions, comparing himself on one occasion to Moses descending from Sinai with the law. Zizek treats Lacan's notoriously obscure writings as oracular pronouncements on everything from Oedipus Rex to the millennium bug. The latter, for example, is the Lacanian " objet petit a , the 'small other', the object-cause of desire that gives body to the lack in the big Other, the symbolic order". Head-scratching stuff but, compared with the convolutions of Lacan, it is as plain as a Sun headline. I think Zizek's point is that, without some phobia or prejudice that organises our conception of social reality, it would collapse, tumbling us into the "void" of non-being.

Reputedly a great tea drinker, Zizek uses his favourite beverage to explain what he means by "totalitarianism". Just as the anti-oxidants in green tea "neutralise harmful molecules in the blood, known as free radicals" so, mutatis mutandis , the concept of totalitarianism is an "ideological anti-oxidant whose function (is) to tame free radicals and thus help to maintain its politico-ideological good health". The ruling powers use the spectre of totalitarianism to prevent thinking about radical change for fear it may lead to the establishment of an authoritarian regime.

Zizek wants to find the cracks in the notion of totalitarianism and then fill them with dynamite. Is there really no alternative to the market? Yes, Christianity. The meaningless excess of Jesus's sacrifice disrupts the logic of exchange and shows that capitalism is not an inevitable arrangement. Was the Soviet Union really so monolithic? No. Although Communist regimes were "a dismal failure", their distance from capitalism opened a "space of utopian expectations" by which to judge the achievements of the party. The dynamite may not always explode - these arguments are easily reversible - but at least you can see what Zizek is doing.

At other times his habit of free association, while it may counter what he sees as the potentially "totalitarian" tendencies of reason, blurs the contours of his argument. He often veers away from totalitarianism to consider the nature of tragedy in the postmodern world. There is an established literary connection between tragedy and tyranny, Macbeth springs immediately to mind, but Zizek seems to treat them as two separate subjects. Lacan believed that tragedy was intimately related to the Oedipus complex. Zizek, however, sees it more in terms of a reversal of Kant's categorical imperative - that is, instead of submitting to the universal moral law to treat others as ends in themselves, the subject ignores it in favour of some inner compulsion. As Zizek puts it, "a higher necessity compels me to betray the very ethical substance of my being". His example is Antigone who, in demanding that her brother be buried against the express commandment of Creon, "disrupts the entire social edifice". If the tragedy of the past was about the dissolution of the self, that of the present is about the dissolution of society.

Rather in the manner of a metaphysical poet, Zizek does try to yoke his heterogeneous material together, but Hamlet , the philosophy of Plato, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger, the sociology of Emile Durkheim, the paintings of Edward Hopper, Heinrich von Kleist's The Marquise of O , Peter Shaffer's Equus , Men in Black and many more are not only radically different from one another, but the very attempt to suppress these differences, usually in the name of Lacan, can itself be seen as totalitarian gesture. This gesture, however, is cancelled out, not just by Zizek's habit of dropping one topic in favour of another, but also by his transferring responsibility to the reader to fill in the gaps of his text. There are connections between the different topics. The encounter with the "other", for example, can never be wholly expressed and this, Zizek argues, is the condition for freedom that has implications for totalitarianism. But these connections are largely tenuous and my overall impression is of a broken argument peppered by brilliant aperçus . Who else but Zizek could show that the postmodern celebration of difference depends on the radical abolition of the difference of class conflict, or that cultural studies' interrogation of power relations does not extend to its asking what its own position is within these relations? On the other hand, as Zizek is fond of saying, he seems to have missed the serious flaw in his own argument, namely, that if the social order is modelled on psychic permanence, then not only does this militate against change, it also means we desire our own oppression. Furthermore, can we, as Zizek suggests, really change reality by talking about it differently? In one sense yes, but a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion

Author - Slavoj Zizek
ISBN - 1 85984 792 7
Publisher - Verso
Price - £16.00
Pages - 280

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