Friday, June 4, 2010

Slavoj Žižek's Living in the End Times: A Review, Part I

If I had to recommend one contemporary philosopher for everybody to read, it would definitely be the great Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Oblivious of what his prissy colleagues in the academia might think, he gives equal space in his analysis to Husserl, Hegel, Hollywood and Heroes (an American TV series). I tend do disagree with many things that this passionate Marxist and devoted follower of Lacan says but his writing is so brilliant that each new book by him makes me jump for joy right in the bookstore. At over 400 pages long, Living in the End Times is Žižek's most important political statement so far in his fruitful intellectual career.

Žižek is the kind of philosopher who never stoops to triviality. He challenges every preconceived notion we might have. This is the reason why he mocks the concept of tolerance that enraptures liberals, criticizes Mahatma Gandhi as somebody whose struggle to protect the rights of the Untouchables ended up perpetuating the caste society, and ridicules the familiar trope that "globalization threatens local traditions and . . . flattens differences." Those who acquire an ironic distance from ideology and laugh at its tenets are - according to Žižek - most fully under the control of ideology. It is precisely Žižek's willingness to analyze critically every concept that others tend to hold as holy that has led him to be vituperated by pretty much every political group imaginable. If you want a book that will tell you things you already believe, Living in the End Times is not the kind of reading you will enjoy. If, however, you want to be forced to question and to think, Žižek is the philosopher for you. If anger motivates your analytical capacities, then rest easy: Žižek is guaranteed to shock you out of an intellectual aporia.

According to Žižek, we are living through a moment of crisis that our global capitalist system is undergoing. Žižek uses the well-known scheme of the five stages of grief in order to address our collective responses to the crisis. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance give name to the chapters in Žižek's book. There is a certain sense of discontent with the way the system in question functions, says Žižek. There is a danger that this discontent will be appropriated by nationalist populists. The Slovenian philosopher believes that the main task of the progressives is to avoid this and find a way to articulate this discontent in progressive terms.

Žižek's criticism of "today's ethical-legal conservatives" is convincing and incisive, as usual. Their struggle is futile because what they are trying to recreate simply did not exist in the first place:
In wanting to recreate the lost order. . . they will sooner or later be forced to admit not that it is impossible to restore. . . the old traditional mores to life, but that the corruption they are fighting in the modern permissive, secular, egotistic, etc. society was present from the very beginning.
Try analyzing pretty much any aspect of the moralistic agenda of the Conservatives and you will see how they are trying desperately to "preserve" a system that - unlike what they would have us believe - isn't time-hallowed in the least. Take, for example, their fervent insistence that women should stay at home and not work. While a tradition of women working and playing an important role in society actually exists, housewifery as women's only role is not that "traditional" at all. A fairly small but extremely vocal group of people in the industrialized societies of the XIXth century (and then again for a couple of decades in the XXth century) could afford to acquire and keep non-productive women. Of course, today a whole ideology exists aimed at convincing us that this way of life has always existed and, hence, should be maintained in perpetuity. [This line of argument obviously comes from me and not from Žižek. He, as I already mentioned, is not hugely feminist.]

Žižek begins the first chapter of his book with a topic that is normally the most likely to antagonize me: he criticizes the recent measures by the French government to outlaw public wearing of burqas. This is an issue where Žižek 's Lacanian male chauvinism comes through. He is simply incapable of imagining the feelings of a Western woman confronted with such a visible reminder of how pervasive brutalization of women still is. Consequently, his entire analysis of the anxiety provoked by the burqa in Westerners is completely unconvincing. So you can imagine how good this author must be that not even this completely misogynistic start to his new book would put me off reading it.

The good news is that the philosopher abandons this cul-de-sac line of reasoning soon enough in favor of a much more fruitful discussion of what kind of a response should the progressives offer to the current systemic crisis. Zizek points out that in spite of their internal contradictions the conservatives are pretty successful at channeling the growing popular discontent with the current state of affairs to their own ends. He calls the progressives to stop being afraid of radical change. Nobody can guarantee that the revolution will "work", he says. And we'd be wrong to ask for such a guarantee. But we are nearing the apocalyptic moment of a complete disintegration of the current global order. Zizek insists that the only responsible thing for today's progressives to do is to be ready to provide a viable and radically different alternative. We have to come out of our state of denial and recognize that trying to modify the existing system so that it would be somehow "better", "fairer" or "more just" is a completely useful enterprise.

[To be continued. . .]

20 comments:

Khephra said...

Sounds about like I expected...

Anonymous said...

Great review. This book was already on my to-read list, but now is moved up a few notches.

-Mike

Peter said...

I'm a little baffled and confused that you've read Zizek's first chapter as misogynistic and that you think Lacanians are male chauvinists - do you think the banning of the Burqa is a progressive 'libertarian' feminist break through? What of the women who 'choose' to wear the Burqa? Are their rights as women being denied? Check out this article as I'm from Melbourne and many 'feminists' are seeking to ban the Burqa in Australia, but of course, shouldn't we be hearing from the women themselves whether or not they feel an imposition to wear the Burqa from their husbands/families?

http://www.theage.com.au/national/beneath-the-veil-20100605-xlye.html

As well as this, I think a lot of the feminist Lacanians I know would be quite dismissive of your claims that Lacan is a male-chauvinist. Sounds like you're knee deep in ideology yourself.

- Peter

Clarissa said...

Peter: another quote from Zizek's new book that to me tells he is hugely mysoginistic: Our historical moment is the one "when patriarchy definitely lost its hegemonic role" (50). This is a statement of somebody who gleefully turns a blind eye to the terrible hold that the patriarchy has over us simply because it suits him to do so. That's chauvinism in the same way that anybody who says that there is no racism any more is racist.

In respect to burqas, as I said, I'm not trying to defend the rights of burqa-wearing women because I'm not interested in condescending to them in such a paternalistic way. I want to protect MY rights. Whatever they choose or don't choose, I want my choices to be respected as well. I believe that I have a right not to be confronted with women who are degraded and humiliated by men, even though it's their choice to be degraded and humiliated. Actually, Zizek supports me in this type of approach (see here: http://clarissasbox.blogspot.com/2009/05/slavoj-zizeks-violence-part-ii.html), except in what concerns the burqa. Here, he allows his own lucid approach to collapse around him. That tells me once again that he is mysoginistic.

The fact that some women are Lacanians is not an argument to prove Lacan's theories aren't deeply chauvinistic. Huge numbers of women support the patriarchy (Sarah Palin is the perfect example.)

As for me being knee-deep in ideology, of course I am. We all are. Nobody can hope to escape their ideology. Only a full understanding of that can serve as a first step towards the understanding of how ideology works.

Peter said...

Clarissa,

I'm not quite sure I understand you here - you suggest that Zizek is hugely mysoginistic for making the point that the patriarchy has lost its hegemony, but you want to protect your rights not to see it in practiced in the public sphere?

Just to state my position on this, there are huge inequalities between men and women under democratic liberal capitalism, but as for some universal political force called the Patriarchy, I'm afraid you're going to have to point to where it actually exists as an organisation. Where I'm from, there is a tiny political party called the "Fathers against the Family Court" that gets rapturous laughter at social gatherings for their political impotency and absurdity. Anyway, I certainly don't see that the passage you've quoted from is indicative of Zizek mourning some kind of loss of an effective Patriarchal superstructure that should be reinstated immediately.

If you can answer his questions that follow your excerpt as well as acknowledge the footnote at the bottom of the page you've quoted from, I may shift my ideological position, but I think you've misread him if you think he's being misogynistic:

"What becomes of patriarchal family values when a child can sue his parents for neglect and abuse, or when the family and parenthood itself are 'de jure' reduced to a temporary and dissolvable contract between independent individuals?"

What I think Zizek is using the example of the banning of the Burqa (which is really such a small, trivial issue in the West compared with the ecological crisis, GFC and even, say, violence against women) to state the duality of the ideological function of 'othering' through the law. Although Zizek is hardly a feminist, he is certainly not a woman-hater: from the examples you've pointed to thus far and the fact that I've read around most of Zizek's huge corpus of work and haven't found anything suspect in his positions related to women, I'm afraid that the burden is on you to prove Lacan's theories 'are' deeply chauvinistic.

Peter

Clarissa said...

On Lacan and misoginy Julia Kristeva is a good source. Also, here are some quotes from people who discuss this issue at length. I can give a lot more sources on this subject, if you wish. The chauvinistic nature of Lacan's theory has been discussed in academia for decades:

"The problems with using the phallus as a gender-neutral and "universal" signifier should be obvious. Despite Lacan's strong contention that the phallus is a gender-neutral term, he is suggesting that only one sexual organ has the power and force to be a candidate for his "transcendental signifier" or, as Bowie puts it, that "only one organ [can] mean" (128). Given the extensive historical association in our culture between the phallus and the penis, we cannot simply dismiss this association as irrelevant; for us, if not for Lacan, the phallus is the penis. Thus there is considerable slippage between his thought and the demands empirical experience places upon his late twentieth-century reader:
As the word suggests, it is a term privileging masculinity.... The valorization of the penis and the relegation of female sexual organs to the castrated category are effects of a socio-political system that also enables the phallus to function as the "signifier of signifiers".... The symbolic function of the phallus envelops the penis as the tangible sign of privileged masculinity, thus in effect naturalizing male dominance.... By
means of the phallus, the subject comes to occupy the position of "I" in
discourse. (Grosz 122-3, 125)
Or, to quote Bowie, the phallus is the "male genital transcendentalized" (142). Lacan's thought is, then, undeniably phallocentric ."

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Strindberg's+Early+Dramas+and+Lacan's+%22Law+of+the+Father%22-a057829063

"The ‘stain’ arises because dotted throughout Lacan’s works are statements that announce ‘there is no such thing as woman’ and, furthermore, that sexual relationships are impossible. This is in a context where the master signifier that makes all signification possible is called the phallus. Lacan states, very clearly, that the phallus is not reducible to the penis, so it is ostensibly very different from the penis that underpinned Freud’s opus. However, his use of the term ‘phallus’ further opens his work to charges of misogyny. Man, for Lacan, desires the phallus whilst woman is the phallus. The woman, it would seem, is reduced to the status of nothing more than a male member, an object denied speech, agency, subjectivity and, indeed, the possibility of being."

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:9WqCrd0b9ykJ:group.aomonline.org/cms/Meetings/Los_Angeles/Workshop08/nancyharding.doc+lacan+mysoginy&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

Clarissa said...

The Burqa stops being a "trivial" issue after your country's Supreme Court seriously discusses the introduction of Shariah laws in Canada, after you see women being led around the streets of Montreal on leashes, after Muslim and Ortodox Jewish women campaign to ban male presence in government-sponsored birth preparation classes, and so on and so forth. Besides, if it were a trivial issue, why would Zizek dedicate so much space to it?

As to the patriarchy, I can;t turn on the television, pick up a newspaper, or talk to my students without being assaulted by patriarchal propaganda. The fact that some chidlren have a right to sue their parents (a right that, as a psychoanalyst should well know, abused children will never be able to practice) is actually extremely trivial in this respect.

Patriarchy is defined as "control by men of a disproportionately large share of power." What is the percentage of women in Congress? In the boardrooms of corporations? Who possesses the "disproportionately large share of power"? But no, some children have a "right" to sue their parents. They don't do that but they could if they knew of that right and weren't too terrified to exrecise it. So patriarchy does not exist.

Really?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review and for taking the time to answer questions about Žižek's book. I heard there is a huge brouhaha surrounding some things that Žižek said about Israel in this book.

Is it true that he engaged in Israel-bashing? I've heard rumors he's an anti-semite but I'm not sure I believe them. What do you think?

Clarissa said...

Anonymous: Zizek knows of these accusations, of course. In this book he mentions that he has been vituperated both as a virulent Zionist and a convinced anti-Semite. :-)

When I read what he has to say about the nature of today's anti-Semitism, though, I can see just how silly such accusations are:

"Contemporary anti-Semitism no longer takes the same form as the old ethnic anti-Semitism; its focus has been displaced from Jews as an ethnic group onto the state of Israel" (48).

I happen to agree completely with this point of view: http://clarissasbox.blogspot.com/2009/07/israel.html

Peter said...

Clarissa,

yes, really - there is no such organisation. I really think that Elizabeth Grosz, Julia Kristeva and Renata Salecl work within the Lacanian trajectory in order to overcome and develop his assertions, not to beat his theories into submission because they're inherently chauvinistic. However, Grosz's assertion that "...given the extensive historical association in our culture between the phallus and the penis, we cannot simply dismiss this association as irrelevant; for us, if not for Lacan, the phallus is the penis..." completely misunderstands both the phallus (as a representational and artificial device that signifies power) and the biological penis (a stupid, unpredictable and insignificant excess of flesh attached to the male that tends to cause anxiety in the male subject precisely because it is NOT a phallus).

Harding's claim that "...the woman, it would seem, is reduced to the status of nothing more than a male member, an object denied speech, agency, subjectivity and, indeed, the possibility of being..." is an incredibly dubious reading of Lacan, although even if it 'seems' this way, Lacan is not suggesting that he 'approves' of it, moreover that it 'seems' to be a predominant category of the subject.

I think that Lacan would place these claims quite happily in the imaginary realm - of course there is a debate over whether Lacan hates women (I think his 'there is no such thing as woman' gets misinterpreted the most - oddly enough by women... geddit?), but the debate has no merit and furthermore no proof - its just reactionary speculation.

Peter

Peter said...

Since when does the Supreme Court in Canada have executive power to introduce anything?

If I'm honest I don't particularly advocate the praxis of Islam, but I don't think 'banning' what women are and are not allowed to do with their own bodies is the fundamental issue at stake here: I'm okay to blow up this 'debate' happening in France, Belgium and elsewhere into what it actually is: it is illegal to practice religions other than Islam in certain sovereign Arab states. If we want to talk about banning the practice of Islam in the West, let's talk about it then (I'm for allowing the practice). It sickens me that this ideological battle is being fought over the female body and what it is and is not allowed to do (and that oddly enough, certain women speaking from a 'feminist' position are leading the charge). Talk about rolling the clock back - a ten year war was fought in Troy over Helen.

If wearing the Burqa is enforced by law (any law) then I'm against it. If wearing the Burqa is a choice made by women then I'm for it. If banning the Burqa is enforced by law then I'm against it. If we're going to be a dogmatic liberal society, then let's be a dogmatic liberal society.

You've missed my point on the Patriarchy: like Brecht, I know there is an enemy that has a name, address, phone number and a webpage.

So really, you are going to have to name some names that actually possess this hegemonic 'phallusy' of the patriarchal plot to subjugate women.

However, this isn't really the point I'm trying to make, I think we're on the same side (I looked up reviews of Zizek's work precisely because I am presenting a paper on 'Living in the End Times' shortly and thought I'd google some reviews. Yours came up - and I agree except on this very point we're talking about) and I'd prefer this not to be some sort of strange phalliocentric discourse on whether or not if we overcame the patriarchy under capitalism all would be roses. My fundamental point is that under Capitalism inequality is rife and by reading power discourses like Congresses, Courts, boardrooms etc. by counting the dicks in the rooms and corridors compared with the account of the vaginas in the room tends to forget to account for the amount of dicks and vaginas outside of those rooms and corridors without power. Perhaps this is a flawed wager I'm making, but I see gender inequality (as yes, completely conceded, it is there) similarly to Zizek's point of Ghandi's elevation of the 'untouchables' to a higher position within the caste system: you cannot get rid of the inequalities within the very system that makes them possible; instead, you have to get rid of the system.

Peter

Clarissa said...

Peter: In the world of Lacan, Zizek and Co, there is indeed no woman. Women's rights are of no interest to them.

In my view, there is nobody more reactionary than Lacan and the criticism that comes out of the Lacanian circle. In my academic discipline, when we encounter a particularly egregious sexist, we even joke 'Oh, this must be a Lacanian!' More often than not, we are right. :-)

I am extremely interested in getting to know some pro-women Lacanian scholarship. If you can give some examples of such scholarship, I would be happy to acquaint myself with them.

Clarissa said...

Gender inequality is not a result of capitalism. It existed long before capitalism came into being, so I'm not sure how you manage to find a connection between them. Destroying capitalism will do nothing to change that. Patriarchy exists on a completely different level.

Have you noticed how in the Soviet Union a completely and outrageously patriarchal morality was practiced? Do you know that Stalin punished abortion by death? So, capitalism is not the enemy here.

"Burqas should be allowed by law because that's waht people choose" is a completely specious argument. There are tons of things that people choose to do that is not allowed by law. Walking around naked is not allowed. Selling your kidneys is not allowed.

Besides, what about my choice not to be surrounded by the degraded women? Why is my choice less significant? In a democracy, the majority wins. My belief that women are not property is that of the majority, so our way should win.

Good luck on the paper!!

Peter said...

http://www.lacan.com/zizwoman.htm

Peter said...

With Mitchell and Rose’s interpretation of Freud’s, and later Lacan’s, theses on sex and sexuality we thus see immediately that sexuality, and subjectivity itself, is a fragile accomplishment rather than a given position, but an accomplishment that is necessary for recognition of the self as a subject. In Lacan, Rose writes (p. 29) we see an account of ‘the fictional nature of the sexual category to which every human subject is … assigned’. Indeed, sexual identity operates as a law in Lacan’s thesis: subjects are ‘enjoined’ to take up a sexed position, lining up according to whether they have or do not have the phallus. Thus ‘male’ and ‘female’ are notions emerging out of fantasy (p. 33).

Rose defends Lacan against the charge of phallocentrism. Rather than being an ‘unproblematic assertion of male privilege’ (p. 40), the phallus is a function of a symbolic order that is androcentric and which requires that the subject relate itself to a phallus whose status is fraudulent, and a castration complex that is necessary for the inauguration of sexual identity. (With regard to castration, Barzilai, 1999, p. 37 notes that Lacan’s use of the term ‘castration’ in 1938 clearly had a less-than-literal signification. It eventually comes to represent in his work a noncorporeal cut, absence, or void that marks all human experience.) Sexual difference is, however, a ‘legislative divide which creates and reproduces its categories’ (p. 41). Where sexual difference appears to be assigned according to whether a subject does or does not possess the phallus, anatomical difference is only a figure of sexual difference. The complexity of the polymorphous perversity of the subject’s early life, where sex is utterly fluid, is reduced to a ‘crude opposition’ (p. 42). But it is an opposition which fails, because sexuality’s location in the symbolic means that it works in two directions, towards the fixing of meaning and away from that fixing to a point of constant slippage.

It follows that, with anatomy shown to be a sham, the claim to male privilege is unfounded because the male, like the woman, is subjected within the symbolic order. Woman however is placed within the symbolic order as an object. Further, Rose argues that Lacan’s statement that ‘The woman does not exist’, with the ‘The’ under erasure, should not be interpreted literally. Rather, what Lacan does in this statement is show that woman as ‘an absolute category and guarantor of fantasy’ (p. 48) does not exist. It is the phallic function that excludes the woman: she is excluded ‘by’ and not ‘from´ the nature of words – in Rose’s reading of Lacan, therefore, the woman is necessary for man’s ability to know his own self-knowledge and truth. But the notion of ‘woman’ is a fantasy, and so it would follow that ‘man’ must be too, for each subject must line up behind a door marked ‘male’ or ‘female’, and in choosing which door their biology is not implicated. Lacan refuses the possibility of any pre-discursive reality and so there can be no feminine outside language. The ‘feminine’, it follows ‘is constituted as a division in language, a division which produces the feminine as its negative term. If woman is defined as other it is because the definition produces her as other’ (Rose, 1982, p. 55/56).

The Lacanian notion of phallic difference is designed, Rose concludes, to expose the arbitrary and symbolic nature of sexual difference. It is not psychoanalysis that has produced that difference: its role is to give an account of how that difference is produced. Lacan’s work is important to a feminist interpretation, in Rose’s view, because it exposes the ‘fundamental imposture’ used in the subordination of the female and the homosexual."

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:9WqCrd0b9ykJ:group.aomonline.org/cms/Meetings/Los_Angeles/Workshop08/nancyharding.doc+butler+lacan&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au&client=safari

(The very Nancy Harding you used to make your point).

I'll be in touch.

Peter

Peter said...

"Mitchell and Rose and Seminar XX

The first translation into English of Lacan’s important seminar on sex and sexuality, Seminar XX, was undertaken by Jacqueline Rose. In her introduction to this text, Juliet Mitchell outlines the history of Freud’s development of the castration complex as the inaugurator of sex and sexuality. Lacan, she writes, remains true to Freud’s perspective of the ‘fragmented subject of shifting and uncertain sexual identity’ (1982, p. 26). He follows Freud in understanding that ‘[t]o be human is to be subjected to a law which decentres and divides: sexuality is created in a division, the subject is split; but an ideological world conceals this from the conscious subject who is supposed to feel whole and certain of a sexual identity’ (ibid). ‘Sexual identity’ here refers to one’s place as male and female, and to one’s object of sexual choice. The fragility of sexual identity is reinforced a few pages later by Jacqueline Rose, who writes that for Freud, as for Lacan, ‘sexual difference is constructed at a price … that .. involves subjection to a law which exceeds any natural or biological division’ (Rose, 2002, p. 28) . The phallus, in Rose’s understanding, becomes a ‘concept’ which ‘stands for that subjection, and for the way in which women are very precisely implicated in its process’ (ibid).

Peter said...

Clarissa,

oh dear - we've reached a deadlock. I don't agree with you on the majority of what you said in your last post, but since this is your blog I'll stop there. If you'd like to continue what will most likely be a heated academic debate, email me at peterabarden@gmail.com for a 'not-so-public' discourse.

Otherwise, good luck with your teaching and blogosphere.

Regards,

Peter

Anonymous said...

GREAT reaview! Are you going to write any more about this book?

Clarissa said...

Anonymous: I might if I see that there is demand for more.

Anonymous said...

Cool! I will be looking forward to it.