Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, by Slavoj Žižek

David Gunkel enjoys a stimulating polemic about why we need to reflect on what ‘getting back to normal’ means in the wake of the coronavirus crisis

July 9, 2020
Cart of fire extinguishers
Source: Reuters
Beyond firefighting: ‘this pandemic…forces us into a confrontation with the normality of the normal and the possibility that what is abnormal may provide better outcomes’

There are two kinds of book: traps and fire extinguishers. Traps are written in order to be triggered at a future time. They are published, set in place and then patiently wait for the right moment to spring into action. Fire extinguishers, by contrast, are books that are written in reaction to something that is either a hot topic just bursting forth or an immediate crisis that calls for some kind of emergency response.

Each form of literature has its advantages and potential problems. Traps can have a long shelf life and remain pertinent well into the future. But it is also possible that the issue, problem or opportunity intended to act as a trigger never materialises. Some very clever and well-devised traps have been deployed but never activated.

Fire extinguishers, meanwhile, are a form of “just in time literature”. They are immediately needed and applicable. No one asks why this sort of book has been written or to what issue, problem or concern it responds. Its raison d’être is clearly evident and not in need of explanation. But the shelf life of this kind of writing can be short – really short. It may be pertinent for only a few weeks or months, after which time the problem to which it responded has subsided, been altered or mutated into something completely different.

Slavoj Žižek’s new book (whose cover plays on the verbal association between “panic” and “pandemic”) certainly appears to be a fire extinguisher. It was written at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and quickly rushed into publication so as to provide the public with a philosophical engagement with the opportunities and challenges of the novel coronavirus and the social, political and technological responses that have been marshalled to contend with the accompanying panic.

At this point in time, however, we do not know what its impact and shelf life will be. Will it remain an emergency response that disappears and withdraws as efforts to control the virus begin to take hold? Or will it have lasting impact, speaking to the novel opportunities and challenges of a post-Covid-19 world? Interestingly, these question are precisely those that are addressed and developed within the pages of the book. Žižek sets his sights not only on the immediate panic but also on the consequences of the pandemic for individuals, nations and the global community.

It’s a risky bet, a bet on the future in the face of odds that are not looking so good. But that is what makes Pandemic! something more than a mere fire extinguisher. It is obviously a negative book, but negative in the double sense that we get from G. W. F. Hegel. It documents the dialectical negation that confronts all of us in the face of a global crisis that challenges our very way of life – thesis slamming head first into the antithesis of a dangerous and potentially fatal virus. But it does not remain at the stage of this one-sided negation; it passes over into a second negation, or “Aufhebung”. This second negative (or negation of negation) does not so much produce a positive outcome as liberate an affirmation – a “yes saying” that is open to what can be and what possibly should be from this point forward.

Despite (or perhaps even because of) these philosophical musings, I can hear the voices of sceptics and naysayers, and for very good reasons. Pandemic! is a philosophical book. And right now – in the face of what amount to life and death decisions – it seems, to most people at least, that the very last thing we need is philosophy. To put it even more cynically, one could ask: what gives Žižek the right to use and capitalise on the panic surrounding the pandemic to peddle his philosophical speculations, when what is really needed are boots-on-the-ground efforts to help real people and communities who are either suffering or at risk of suffering?

This is a reasonable and very understandable challenge. It is one that finds expression in the current public policy debates, as cash-strapped state and national governments try to decide which public services can be slashed and burned in an effort to keep the ship of state afloat. And, as one might have anticipated, education and academic research – especially in something as esoteric as philosophy, which has been the poster child for ivory-tower navel contemplation – are definitely in the cross hairs and are looking to be a luxury that we perhaps can no longer afford.

But that is precisely why – right here and right now – we need philosophy more than ever. In saying this, however, one needs to be very clear as to what is meant by the word “philosophy”. Unlike many (if not most) other disciplines, philosophy is not a problem-solving activity. In fact, it is quite the opposite. As Žižek put it in a 2006 article in Topoi, at a time of “public debates on ecological threats, on lack of faith, on democracy and the ‘war on terror’”: “There are not only true or false solutions, there are also false questions. The task of philosophy is not to provide answers or solutions, but to submit to critical analysis the questions themselves, to make us see how the very way we perceive a problem is an obstacle to its solution.”

The panic surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic provides a perfect case study. Right now, we are all asking ourselves questions such as “When can things go back to normal?” Žižek’s main point in Pandemic! is that this question is not necessarily the right or even the best line of enquiry. Instead of asking “When can things go back to normal?” we should be enquiring about the normal, at least in its economic and political aspects. What is it that we think of as normal? Whose normal is this? What interests does it serve? And how does asking about a return to normal normalise exceptional expressions of power and control in which we have always and already been complicit?

The question, therefore, is not “When can things go back to normal?” The question should be “Why do we want things to go back to normal, when in fact things have never been normal?” This pandemic, instead of being a debilitating catastrophe that ruins the status quo, forces us into a confrontation with the normality of the normal and the possibility that what is abnormal and eccentric may in fact provide better opportunities and outcomes. To return to the point where we began, it might not be enough to respond to the panic by rushing to put out the fire. We also need to ask who set the fire in the first place and what conditions – social, political, economic and ideological – facilitated its proliferation. Pandemic! might appear to be a fire extinguisher, but in reality it is a trap. And that is a good thing.

David Gunkel is a distinguished teaching professor in the department of communication at Northern Illinois University and the author, most recently, of Robot Rights (2018) and Hacking Cyberspace (2019).

Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World
By Slavoj Žižek
Polity, 144pp, £40.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781509546107 and 9781509546114
Published 20 May 2020

The author

Slavoj Žižek, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (and a researcher in philosophy at the University of Ljubljana), is one of the world’s best-known – and most prolific – political and cultural theorists.

A dissident during the declining years of communism in his native Slovenia, Žižek ran for a place in the four-person collective presidency in the country’s first free election in 1990. Marxist dialectics and their Hegelian sources remain a central strand in his thinking. He was the first person to translate a text by Jacques Derrida into Slovenian, and he went on to edit and translate books by both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Psychoanalytic thinking of an eclectic kind underlies The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), his first English-language book, and remains an important element of his subsequent writing.

A further long-term passion is cinema. Žižek has been the subject of a documentary by Astra Taylor, Zizek! (2005), and has presented two films by Sophie Fiennes, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012).

His writings – which range from vast treatises such as Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (2012) to much more popular texts and even Žižek’s Jokes: Did You Hear the One about Hegel and Negation? (2014) – have always attracted controversy. Writing in 2015, the late conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton praised him for “writ[ing] perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music…when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamic extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say.” Yet Scruton also savaged Žižek’s “defence of terror and violence” and his “unstoppable flow of words, images, arguments and references [which] avoid all the real obstacles that mere reason can lay in their way”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: A shot of clarity for the panic-stricken

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