Slavoj Zizek has a new book out on Verso Books: First As Tragedy, Then As Farce; a title borrowed from Marx’s “correction” of Hegel’s idea that history necessarily repeats itself: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
So Verso teamed up with the Brecht forum yesterday to pack the 900-seat Great Hall at Cooper Union with an audience that sold the event out well in advance. At $10 each, that’s $9000, though it seemed like quite a few tickets were bought at the $15 option, which included a copy of the book. That sure is philosophy operating at the level of rock stardom, but we learned that Verso is trying to replace the “Elvis of Cultural Theory” quote with “The most dangerous philosopher in the West” in marketing Žižek. Fittingly, the author’s new website operated by Verso states that the event had to stop when it did because of a bomb threat. Sure, I’ll believe the 10% of truth, 80% of liberal arts theater and 10% of marketing potential in that.
Attending a lefty event at an artsy school in New York comes with a mixed baggage. On the one hand you have all these young students speaking in foreign languages, representing the metropolises of the world. On the other you have a bunch, only slightly less annoying than teenagers, who think squatting at Starbucks is somehow an act of substance or that being dragged out of the Great Hall by cops once the event has run out of time is somehow preferable or even symbolic. Not all, but most liberal students in the first world pick up on the thrill of changing the world before coming around to the reality of putting food on the plate or understanding what it really means to live in the marginalized space outside the operations of modern civilization. But that’s only a minor complain, the minor point being that the events at NYPL, where I saw Žižek last, seem more mature.
I’m also not a fan liberals (like the organizers of the event) using the word “radical” in reference to people like Edward Said. How is Said radical, unless radical means articulate, clear in thought and sound in ethics? I can only assume that what divides the radicals from the non-radicals is either the sympathy for Palestinians or an intelligent understanding of Communist writings.
I forgot my audio recorder at home, but, as always, Žižek made great points in his usual animated ways. Here’s a bad recap:
The future of the political divide lies not between the Christian conservative and the liberals, but between the proper (dying) left and the liberal “softies”, who are afraid to use terms like “the working class”, though what is needed is not the burial or revival of these terms, but really the redefinition of them; who, in the end, believe in capitalism as a viable solution (and are probably afraid of sympathizing with Palestinians). He evoked the debate he had with Bernard-Henri Lévy not too long ago, when the French philosopher (playing the role of “softie” in this instance) asked if it wouldn’t be wonderful to have a world where the women can wear whatever they want and be in a relationship with whomever they choose. When presented as such, Žižek said that the answer is hardly ever a “no” but to be accounted for is the price of the bombs that fall over villages and cities to make this women liberation possible; and then there’s the option of asking the Communist question in the same sly way (roughly and poorly paraphrased here): “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a collective force to feed the whole world, fight poverty and survive economic crises, etc.?” To which the answer is hardly ever a straight “no”. You can download that truly fantastic debate from the NYPL website.
We found out that Žižek gets his intellectual orgasm from watching Fox News, when he hears of the concentration camps Obama is setting up to eventually fill with the political right (I assume). The right pushes the notion of freedom of choice when it comes to healthcare reform, but as is the case with electricity and water, Žižek would much rather not have to spend time choosing a health care provider, which would free up time that would make actual freedom of choice, where it matters most, more attainable.
Realistically, Israel-Palestine should be a bi-national secular state. We pay “rent” to Microsoft (stand-in for everything it represents) to participate in the “general intellect”.
One of the few instances when the brutal consumer in Žižek comes out is when he goes to Starbucks. In the realization that he’s not only paying for coffee, but also a dollar in ideological fees to help a needy community somewhere, he feels, “I just want a coffee and nothing else!”. This was an often-used example he was reluctant to repeat, so he also read the marketing literature from Tom’s shoes: that a pair bought here gives a pair to the needy elsewhere; that the force of consumerism and capitalism that is responsible for the disparity is re-enforced and encouraged in an attempt to somehow address this disparity.
Žižek has an issue with being called the “Elvis of Cultural Theory” because it was Elvis who, when threatened by the popularity of the Beatles, went to the big boys and complained about the Beatles being tools of Communism. Despite running out of time, Žižek pretty much forced his way to the conclusion of his talk, which ended with a poignant joke about a Communist who (“obviously”) ends up in hell. I have no desire to butcher it, so I will try to find either a sound clip or a transcript.
For the substantial and meaty bits, you’ll have to get the book. Since they started late and ran out of time, there was no Q&A, so to make up for it Žižek asked Verso Books to put up the complete text of his talk on the new “shitty” website. It’s not up yet, but hopefully they will follow through.