Thursday, November 1, 2012

Slavoj Žižek's "The Year of Dreaming Dangerously": Book Review

Critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek gathers his thoughts about last year's resistance to capitalism and globalization. They comprise loosely topical, often rambling and discursive chapters "outlining the contours of its hegemonic ideology, focusing on the reactionary phenomena (populist revolts in particular) that arise in reaction to social antagonisms". These themes segue into "the two great emancipatory movements of 2011--the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street" and then a discussion of The Wire. These sections consider how to fight the system's power without furthering its dominance.

The earlier selections float about ethnic tension, culture clash, and Western distrust of fundamentalist dogma. None of this discussion will be unfamiliar to his audience. Žižek roams around the wreckage of capitalism and the attempts to counter its damage. Marxian critiques dominate, although Žižek realizes that whatever (utopia shimmers behind the flames vaguely) can replace today's monolithic structure flits away, frustratingly for the reader if less so for him--as a veteran Slovene provocateur. Lacan, Jameson, Chesterton, Lenin, Rand, Hegel: the range of sometimes disparate thinkers intrigues, but the level of most of these contents prefers academic terms. The second sentence of the book's second paragraph embeds "a Greimasian semiotic square" with neither context nor apology.

However, clearer phrasing emerges for a patient reader. As in his previous work, he challenges the status quo yet, similar to street activists, sidesteps what must be done for practical reform. Hints of violence, overthrow, and revolution lurk, but peer out nearly rarely, as in the end of his Occupy chapter: "Is there a name for this reinvented democracy beyond the multi-party representational system? There is indeed: the dictatorship of the proletariat."

He stimulates his sympathetic readers while leaping clear of collusion with a discredited Marxist orthodoxy. This clever stance may encourage fellow travelers, but it may irritate those readers wishing for clear guidance. What can be gleaned sparkles here and there amid the dust-ups and pepper spray. He appeals to the radical left to further the threatened gains of liberalism. He pointedly asks what happens, as in the Arab uprisings, if democracy (as of the writing of this book in June 2012) grows, while poverty remains?

"Hysterical actors" jump out of the marches with Molotovs. Occupy's protesters demanded more than recycling, clicking online to donate a few bucks to charity, or a one-percent donation via a Starbucks cappuccino. Such desperation, as we know, fizzled out or was stamped out soon for many of last year's activists.

Today, their rage simmers. "The self-propelling circulation of Capital remains more than the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled." Perhaps Marx can help. Freedom beckons not as an end achieved within the political sphere but ultimately in the liberation of the network of "social relations," Žižek reminds us.

Meanwhile, we may vote for a candidate, but never on who owns what, who controls the financiers who control the politicians who control the electorate. Citizens, trapped by representational democracy in cahoots with capitalists, had to bailout the banks. Banks, not uncontrolled government spending, he insists, bear the blame for the breakdown and the taxpayer's forced repair of the rapacious system that rules nearly the entire world.

The chapter on Occupy Wall Street succeeds best in raising necessary questions about where (if far less so how) to confront this predicament. Žižek cites Alain Badiou: "Today, the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It's called Democracy." This articulates, in Žižek's paraphrase, an embrace of a "democratic illusion". This deludes the populace that only democratic procedures can foment possible change.

Citizens lull themselves into a situation where only "legal rights" can be exercised. For instance, nobody can countenance taking over the banks and putting them "under the people's control". The people persist within dream that overshadows "any radical transformation of capitalist relations". The same parties keep getting elected which ruled over the triumphant recovery led by and benefiting the bankers.

Three closing sections enter into pop culture and belief, as they settle into or rise above our political and economic oppression. "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King, Monteverde's Orfeo, and the recent film adaptation of Coriolanus typify the broader cultural connections Žižek enjoys, in another loosely composed but intermittently involving exploration of rebels and sociopaths on screen, following a look at the likes of McNulty, Lester, and Omar from The Wire.

Finally, Pascal's concept of the "deus absconditus," the "hidden God," infuses a "decisionist nihilism" that rejects a safe moderation. Pascal's "existentialist wager" melts into the dramatic skepticism of the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark before transforming into a return to Hegel's rejection of the known for the unknown, in this novel if blurred vision of radical utopia.

All this winds up chaotic, willfully so or due to the author's expectation that his diligent and combative readers do the heavy lifting to enact change, beyond that of intellectual suggestions or ideological explorations.

Admittedly, Žižek without acknowledgement recycles material from his restive, theoretically dense, if also aphoristic, journalism for The Guardian and the London Review of Books, as well as references and passages unattributed from his previous, prolific publications. This collection resembles a rapidly compiled anthology rather than a bold, fresh contribution from a familiar provocateur. Still, Žižek raises, again, this era's telling question: "is playing with the capitalist beast the only game in town?"
(To Amazon US 10-14-12 and slightly altered to PopMatters 10-22-12. Thanks to Anthony McIntyre and the The Pensive Quill for carrying this 11-19-12. See also my Dec. '08 review of Z's book on Violence.)

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