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A Review of Slavoj Zizek's Living in the End Times

A Review of Slavoj Zizek's Living in the End Times

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Published by J. Jesse Ramirez
A revised version of this review appears in Theory and Event 13, no. 4 (2010).
A revised version of this review appears in Theory and Event 13, no. 4 (2010).

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Published by: J. Jesse Ramirez on Sep 29, 2010
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11/10/2012

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Žižek’s Apocalypse: The End of the World or the End of Capitalism?

J. Jesse Ramírez

Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times. New York: Verso, 2010. US $ 29.95 (hardcover), 432 pp. ISBN 9781844675982.

In The Sense of an Ending, a groundbreaking study of apocalyptic narrative, Frank Kermode warned against the category mistake of taking apocalypse literally.1 For Kermode, human beings exist “in the middest,” in the thick of worldly affairs, where the two great mysteries of the human condition, birth and death, obstruct knowledge on either side. The power of fiction is its capacity to unite beginning, middle, and end in an intelligible whole, affording us a perspective otherwise inaccessible from our place in the middest. Apocalypse, one of the oldest versions of the End, is for Kermode a narrative pattern that humans project onto history in order to make it coherent and comprehensible. To believe in apocalyptic narratives, to subscribe to the view that the End is nigh, and that the world will (and must) soon come to a violent climax, is thus to mistake paradigm for reality—an error that Kermode, writing in the 60s, considered the root of Nazi and Soviet “totalitarianism.” Half a century after The Sense of an Ending, myriad apocalyptic scenarios, from climate change to pandemics to the Christian Rapture, continue to lurk just beyond the horizon. If
1

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).

Pandemics. Today even the most sober-eyed sociologists recognize that “serious perils to the existence of humanity have become a fact of contemporary life. and apocalypticism alike—the specieslevel crises of the age of globalization demand a thorough reconsideration of these categories. see Dipesh Chakrabarty.” and social divisions (ibid.) While the critique of universal or grand narratives defined much of theory and criticism from the mid-twentieth-century onward —in this respect.Kermode is right. . Nuclear Annihilation. Environmental Devastation.). he then proposes that the psychoanalytic theory of grief can map the dominant responses 2 Robert Wuthnow. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” which for them would designate fascism. Kermode’s warnings about apocalyptic belief should be reversed: what is truly dangerous and naïve is the view that climate change is just another run-of-the-mill doomsday fantasy. Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror. 2010). 3 For a compelling argument for the contemporary importance of the concept of species. Žižek’s latest book begins with the premise that “the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point” (x). 8. communism.”2 (In this context. apocalypticism will persist as long as it continues to meet the existential and epistemological needs of beings in the middest.3 It is to such a project that Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times appears to be a timely contribution. one that “green capitalism” will soon dispel.” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 197-222. reality is rapidly adjusting to our sense of an ending: the alarming forecasts of climate scientists have made belief in the impending end of human life as we know it an empirically legitimate position. threatening contemporary capitalism: climate change. “imbalances within the system itself. and Other Threats (New York: Oxford University Press. or Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Žižek identifies four breaking points. But things have also changed since Kermode’s time. Kermode and the poststructuralists share a suspicion of “totalizing thought. In an ingenious analytical move. biogenetics. As regards the ecological crisis. …What was once dismissed as apocalyptic fanaticism is now the prediction of leading scientists.

Christianity and the Revolutionary Tradition. Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (New York: Farrar. bargaining. and the 4 See Norman Cohn. Here we see both the root of liberal commentators’ uneasiness.4 Whereas Kermode emphasized the dangers of linking apocalyptic categories to praxis. and finally revolutionary acceptance.6 but it is no Left Behind.”5 Žižek brazenly affirms apocalyptic analysis as a means for generating “engaged truth. the situation is excellent. (1957. Living in the End Times indeed participates in the various “returns to religion” in contemporary Marxist critical theory. Žižek notes. the book’s five chapters promise critically to analyze contemporary “social consciousness” as symptomatic of the five stages of grief. John Gray. from Kermode’s and Norman Cohn’s classic studies to the more recent work of John Gray and Peter Y. 5 Kermode. New York: Oxford University Press. 3rd.’” Historical Materialism 16 (2008): 59–84. depression. 2007). Žižek claims to capture truth in Badiou’s sense as that which demands the subject’s fidelity to it. ed. 40. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. Living in the End Times is an atheist apocalyptic critique whose force should be measured by its “truth effect. The last stage is summed up in Mao’s remark. and neither is it the sort of supernatural-transcendent truth claimed by Christian fundamentalists’ literal reading of the Book of Revelation.” As outlined in the introduction. Peter Y. of attempting to “rearrange the world to suit them [or] test them by experiment. 1970). Paik. . “The ‘Returns to Religion’: Messianism. at least. 2010). Part I: ‘Wakefulness to the Future. “There is great disorder under heaven.to the coming catastrophe. Straus and Giroux. starting with liberal denial and proceeding to anger. From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. for instance in gas-chambers. 6 John Roberts. Paik.” “The truth we are dealing with here is not ‘objective’ truth” (xiii). Living in the End Times promises to be an important rejoinder to liberal critics of apocalyptic thinking.” its ability to reveal the terminal logic of capitalism and to summon the emancipatory subjectivity needed to overcome it.

biogenetic. Chapter one wanders from reflections on Confucianism and Kant to Žižek’s increasingly familiar ideas about liberal tolerance and the retroactive logic of the Event. social. as can be expected from . only in the last few pages. Chapter two. ostensibly on anger. The third chapter on bargaining is really a defense of political economy. as is often the case. which itself seemed to have been merely tacked on as an afterthought. (It should be noted that Žižek himself describes his writing technique in similar terms in the documentary film Žižek!. I often had the impression that the essay’s only claim to being a critical deployment of grief theory and apocalypticism.) Each chapter needs to contain at least two conceptual moments in order for Žižek to fulfill his introductory promises: a descriptive account of the climatic. This is difficult to do when none of the chapters contain systematic reflections on the psychoanalytic concepts after which they are named. but for radically changing it.” “posttraumatic” subjectivity. Žižek does not mention his key concepts at all. and a critical-analytical recoding of these phenomena in psychoanalytic terms. as the introduction proposes. after completing a section. and thus a golden opportunity to confront Peter Sloterdijk’s Rage and Time.g. was its title. the chapter’s supposed focus. or cultural Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Monstrosity of Christ).. political. To be sure. at least. these sections are brilliant at times. the rest of Living in the End Times mostly fails in its fidelity to the intriguing thematic and analytical outline with which it begins. elaborates instead on the “Christian materialist” political theology Žižek has advocated in other works (e. on depression. For this reader. while the fourth. and especially when. Unfortunately. the five remaining chapters have little to do with Žižek’s stated project. with apocalypticism: the End is a figure not just for making sense of the world. The Fragile Absolute.radical left’s occasional fascination.” “detached. finally focusing on liberal utopia. The Puppet and the Dwarf. contains speculation on the emergence of a new “autistic.

Christianity. look forward to the bio-technological perfection of humanity. Second. First. and the dialectic will find few new ideas in this book (with the exception of an interesting foray into architecture). adding a mystical significance to the post-humanist position. after the reader has almost forgotten the book’s title.’ they somehow presuppose that the autonomous subject freely deciding on his or her acts will still be present. or together under a more general title. As Žižek makes clear. Only now does the book one expects from Žižek truly begin as he surveys three varieties of contemporary apocalypticism (only one of which. while the chapters might be worth reading in their own right. How they elaborate on the seemingly central trope of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is mostly left to the reader’s imagination.such an eclectic and unsettling thinker as Žižek. those already familiar with Žižek’s views on issues like ideology. Digital post-humanism is just . the dream of technological self-enhancement fails to comprehend that such transformation must spell the annihilation of the self. as prelude to the final victory of Christ over the Antichrist. The essays would be better (and more honestly) published either separately. According to Žižek. rent. Žižek turns to apocalypticism—in an interlude. the act. Christian fundamentalists view the apocalypse biblically. But two problems stand out. the neighbor. environmentalism. anticipate the reunification of the human mind with the cosmos. digital post-humanists. they do not cohere with one another or follow the rubric laid out in the introduction. relates back to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned earlier). as in Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes. deciding on how to change its ‘nature’” (347). by the way. and New Age spiritualists. Žižek’s critique of the digital post-humanists is particularly devastating: “when they describe the possibility of intervening in our biogenetic base and changing our very ‘nature. More than 300 pages in. for which the World Transhumanist Association is one example.

To be sure. especially if we also believe that books are weapons in the ideological struggle. all of which are valuable sources. core of Christian fundamentalism (337). but hardly sufficient by themselves for building a compelling account of the “apocalyptic zero-point” of global capitalism or of today’s “social consciousness. Žižek then responds to the New Age spiritualists with his critique of the idea of nature. the interlude on apocalypse. and the final chapter. the only way to be truly ‘realistic’ is to think what. are already engaged believers. Although Žižek will not have convinced anyone of capitalism’s terminal logic by this point in the book. Yet even believers can make reasonable demands for evidence and supporting argumentation. If Žižek’s main concern is not proof. including this one. while he affirms the deep “radical ‘millenarian.another humanism after all.” to use Žižek’s own terms. Žižek’s survey of apocalypticism is underdeveloped. and Wikipedia. then perhaps Living in the End Times should be a slim volume consisting only of the introduction. It is based almost entirely on information taken from newspapers. he suggests that we will never see it unless we believe in it first. Žižek can assume that his Marxist readers. “Acceptance: The Cause Regained. within the coordinates of the system. cannot but .’” that is. personal webpages. which many will remember from way back in Looking Awry. those already faithful to the truth of the Marxist critique of capitalism will find Žižek’s ultimate thesis to be absolutely correct: “The true utopia is the belief that the existing global system can reproduce itself indefinitely.” This chapter is Žižek’s strongest and most interesting precisely because it allows him to abandon any pretenses to sociological description and fully to assume the role of radical ideologue. materialist. That would require a wider range of materials and more space than an interlude can offer. instead of showing us signs of capitalism’s apocalypse so that we may then believe in it. Žižek already acknowledged that his study is not concerned with objective truth. But I had trouble taking most of this section seriously.

a shared ritualistic social performance that would send all good liberals into shock” (371). For Žižek raises a crucial question that those living in the end times. and the True have the resources to avert an apocalypse that is becoming realer every day? As is often the case when reading Žižek’s latest works. Neither does collectivity simply mean the eradication of difference. Žižek forcefully insists on our need for a new radically egalitarian collectivism. they are not even ‘neutral. the Beautiful. Yet Žižek is right to point out that “mass performances [are] not inherently fascist. their original home” (372). Affirming the legacy of May ’68 and the slogan Soyons réalistes. In commentary ranging from Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer. As such observations show. such as a heavy metal concert. presumably because of the way mass. Žižek dedicates his closing pages to elaborating on the “impossible. discipline. though often only minimally demonstrated. only by participating in the collective universality of a shared ritual.” finding indications of the communist culture of the future in surprising places. pithy Hegelian reversals and prose so bloated that it . must ponder: does a political ideology founded on individualism. demandons l’impossible. are we free to express ourselves as the idiosyncratic oddballs that we are. negative freedom. commercialized emotion destroys critical subjectivity. the reader will find in Living in the End Times a mixture of brilliant philosophical analysis and obscurity. Žižek’s greatest contribution to political culture today is his powerful.’ waiting to be appropriated by Left or Right—it was Nazism which stole them from the workers’ movement. or the Mouse Folk” to a Rammstein concert. rather. one founded on supposedly “fascist” principles like ritual.appear as impossible” (363). penetrating cultural criticism and breezy blogosphere opinion. assault on liberalism’s anticollectivist common sense. and “a shamelessly total form of immersion into the social body. Even the radical Herbert Marcuse once quipped that baseball is a fascist sport. and fear of all substantive definitions of the Good. which is all of us.

If at the very least Stalin made the trains run on time.can border on sloppiness. I am tempted to speculate that quality is at least partly related to quantity: as the number and frequency of Žižek’s books has increased. half-obscene way. To state the point in Žižek’s own half-joking. maybe such an editor would at least make sure that Žižek’s books have accurate titles. I wish our Elvis of cultural studies could find a ruthless Stalinist editor who. has their precision and insight not decreased? The question should be addressed to author and editor alike. as he put it in his acknowledgments to The Ticklish Subject. constantly catches Žižek with is “(intellectual) pants down.” thus earning his respect and hate. .

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