Reviewed by Stéphanie Martens
Žižek’s recent book, The Left that Dares to Speak its Name, subtitled Untimely Meditations, is a collection of (updated or revised) media interventions from 2017 to 2019. As such, it has the significant advantage of gathering a couple of years’ worth of Žižek’s prolific journalism into one single volume and will save the curious reader time and effort locating his diverse interventions online, on websites such as The Independent, The Philosophical Salon, or RT News, among others. The book can be read simply as such: an affordable and convenient ‘fun’ read, with a healthy dose of almost-classic jokes, ‘the one about the man who believes himself to be a grain of seed’ (10-11) or the one about the man ordering a ‘coffee without cream’ (197-8). We can also enjoy Žižek’s taste for the absurd and his uncanny talent for speaking ‘Hegelese’ with Daenerys from Games of Thrones (88-92), and for clever paradoxes and antitheses: for instance, stating at the end of chapter 1 that the ‘basic problem’ is ‘how to invent a different mode of passivity of the majority’ (18) or titling chapter 13 with the French May 68 motto ‘Soyons Réalistes: Demandons l’Impossible’ (140).
Žižek’s style, his sense of humour notably, is notoriously splitting: it irritates or charms. These interventions are within character, and a special academic reader advisory could be invented just for him: it contains hit or miss word-plays, odd choices of illustrations and references, overdrawn jokes, multiple overstatements and exaggerations, far-fetched juxtapositions, and also displays an unusual propension to digress or to over-quote Lacan or Lubitch’s films, etc. As a reader who enjoys all these elements, this reviewer found Žižek’s rhetorical skills as impressive and sharp as usual. Particularly enjoyable was remembering and reassessing Cuarón’s Roma (chapter 30) in light of structural class struggles and their artistic yet bourgeois obfuscation. Similarly welcoming was Žižek chiming in on Louis C.K.’s awkward predicament in the aftermath of the Weinstein affair (125-6) or on Rammstein’s latest, controversial, video clip for their title Deutschland (173). These ‘Žižek-esque’ quirks provide a light pop culture intermission in what are otherwise very serious, complex, social or geopolitical issues. Expectedly, such a writing style may justifiably alienate some readers.
More importantly however, this book is not meant as a simple, inconsequential, collection of Zizekianisms. The ambitions are much more: it aims at using punctual events (and controversies) to make an ‘untimely’ point. The introductory chapter closes with: ‘what we need today is a Left that dares to speak its name, not a Left that shamefully covers up its core with some cultural fig leaf. And this name is communism.’ (6) This means: reinterpreting the past, ‘changing’ the past so as to make a ‘different future’ possible, extirpating the left from ‘the trap of oppositionalism’ and reinventing it as ‘an authentic political agent.’ (4-5) This implies highlighting the incredible, yet paradoxical, relevance of Marx today, but also figuring out ‘what is to be done’ – the ‘Leninist question’ as Žižek describes it (182).
With this goal in mind, the interventions presented in this collection loom large thematically, and for this reason, they are hard to arrange and summarize. Four distinct sections are proposed: ‘The Global Mess’ (1-8), ‘The West…’ (9-16), ‘…And the Rest’ (17-24), ‘Ideology’ (25-32) followed by an appendix, but these groupings seem fairly arbitrary and almost all interventions deal with all four, deliberately broad, section headings. Section 2, ‘The West…’, seems most consistent, dealing with politics narrowly defined in North America and Europe, Trump and populism, but also the European Union, Catalonia and Brexit. Chapters on Venezuela, China and Bosnia are found in section 3, ‘… And The Rest’, along with several chapters on Israel and Palestine, anti-Semitism and, in particular, accusations of anti-Semitism levelled against Labour party members in the UK (chapters 9, 11, 17-19). We also find scattered in different sections extensive comments on whistle-blowers, Julian Assange (72, 108, 246, and chapter 32), Edward Snowden, freedom of information and technology. The first section seems to focus on societal phenomena and trends, rather than politics strictly speaking: global migrations and the influx of refugees in Europe, global warming and environmental movements, while interventions in the fourth section are more akin to ‘cultural’ or ‘media’ commentaries, analysing advertisements, films and TV trends. The two appendixes are narrower in their scope, Žižek explaining his own reaction to the Avita Ronnell affair (265-70), and recapping his 2019 debate in Toronto with Jordan Peterson (271-88).
All 34 interventions are testimony to Žižek’s great acumen as a political observer, social and cultural critique; but, this eclectic set, with pieces often written on the spot, necessarily runs the risk, to quote Nietzsche again, to be a book for everyone and no one. After all, who or what is this eponymous ‘daring’ left? Žižek’s own personal politics? A select group? Maybe… Towards the end of the introduction, written specifically for this volume, Žižek writes: ‘what we need today are honest state philosophers, philosophers who are not afraid to dirty their hands in fighting for a different state.’ (5-6). These future ‘honest state philosophers’ may be an ‘ideal’ audience, but, surely, the public so-addressed is broader than a ‘professional club’, and the project more ambitious: a renewed, self-confident left, aware of its own failures and concessions, yet not ashamed of its progressivism and radicalism. Logically, this would suggest that the problem lies with the current left, a left that we must assume to be, by contrast, timid and lukewarm. The question then becomes: who/what is this ‘timid’ left?
If we look at each chapter individually, we can find particular targets deemed too timid, or plainly misguided: the MeToo movement, intellectuals rallying against Brexit, ‘modern Left liberals’ (131, 143), among whom, Chomsky (278), the ‘Left liberal establishment’ (171), ‘fake ecologists’ (93), ‘liberal optimists’ (108), ‘moderate centrists’ (77), but also the ‘democratic socialists’ Žižek seems to favour – like Bernie Sanders in the US, also described as a ‘modest social democrat’ (27), more broadly, the parliamentary left and those trying to oppose Trumpism and rightist populists everywhere. Indeed, the articles gathered in this volume all seem to follow a similar pattern, one of disruption and dissensus: Žižek often opens with a seemingly unfair personal attack, or a deliberate impolitically-correct statement, offering a hook for a story more nuanced and historically grounded than would appear at first sight. Chapter 6 is exemplary: titled ‘Only Autistic Children Can Save Us’, its initial theme is that of global warming, and its denial by ‘Rightist populists.’ It mentions Greta Thunberg and her environmental activism, but also quite unexpectedly The Matrix, the Scandinavian TV-series, The Bridge, and concludes with a point about ‘toxic masculinity’, political cynicism and the need for a radical, revolutionary, change (91-2).
What transpires here is a particular ‘recipe’: impolitically correct bons mots, surprising examples, misleading titles, etc. Žižek does not attempt to make his political and social thought relevant or useful in the world, but instead shows how the world is relevant, useful to thought. He is here faithful to his own ‘turned upside down’ eleventh thesis: ‘In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.’ Such an approach, common in German philosophy, is particularly original and noteworthy in journalistic writing and works well in the case of select, individual articles but does not translate so easily at the book level. Indeed, the parts ‘struggle’ to form a consistent whole: what do these leftist groups have in common? Is ‘timidity’ truly their weakness or failing? Wouldn’t they each ‘dare’ in very different even contradictory ways?
The strengths of Žižek’s media interventions, their grounding in current affairs and events, and their potential appeal to large, diverse audiences are double-edged and become problematic when under the heading of a single book and project. The appendix material for instance expects the reader to be cognizant of the US and Canadian academic milieus, while chapter 4, titled ‘Should the Left’s Answer to Rightist Populism Really Be a “Me Too”?’ (47), ends up discussing at length Laclau’s own left populism project, and a few chapters rely heavily on Žižek’s usual interlocutors, Alain Badiou, Fredric Jameson or Étienne Balibar, requiring a certain familiarity with these authors to be fully appreciated. It should be assumed that the book will not be read from cover to cover by most, and would-be readers will browse quickly to then pick and choose chapters according to their respective interests and background. Moreover, many chapters risk losing relevance quickly: already, some political movements at the foreground of Žižek’s analysis have faded away from news coverage (e.g. Syriza, Podemos, Bernie Sanders and his primary campaign).
How does this impact the larger project? We can, of course, with Žižek, consider these news items as exemplary of long-lasting, symptomatic, general trends. Yet, each exhortation to be ‘daring’ may feel bitter-sweet to the jaded, progressive, reader – potentially one of the ‘timid’ leftists targeted. To such a reader, Žižek’s exhortations may resonate as wishful thinking or worse, counter-productive last-ditch efforts – and the current pandemic, with its gamut of unprecedented sanitary measures and population management, is only inciting more pessimism and ‘timid’ resignation. ‘The Left’ (singular and capital L) Žižek is attempting to revive may be dead already, or rather, it may never have existed as such.
In the end, the book may not work to ‘dare’ and enliven decaying existing left(s) – and how could it? But it certainly works as a series of critical commentaries – making us think twice about the world around us, our own behaviour as consumers and citizens, and our own political positions. The point of view remains original and hard to find in Western mainstream media or political studies. So these 34 interventions are indeed untimely! – but not for the expected reasons: their untimeliness does not reside in Žižek’s own controversial positions or deliberate political incorrectness, or even his unapologetic communism. Žižek’s untimeliness imagines itself to be ‘contrarian’ but it feels rather ‘traditional’ – intellectually and pedagogically. Žižek does not shy away from old-fashioned questions of philosophy, that of happiness and fulfilment for instance: in chapter 31 (and the appendix), he defends a painful life of knowledge, quoting Aristotle, Hegel and Lacan, against government-promoted hedonism (252), ‘happiness studies’ (247), consumerist satisfaction or the ambient ‘(neo-)liberalism of enjoyment.’ Žižek continues to prefer references to continental philosophy and traditional humanities to the latest, big data-driven, science or expertise. Quite simply, Žižek’s fame and success, online or through more traditional media, is backed by traditional erudition and an impressive multi-lingual and multi-cultural European education. His familiarity with popular and mass-culture, and its mobilization in his own writing, should not be mistaken for a repudiation of ‘high’ culture. At its worst, this can still mean discriminatory elitism and cultural chauvinism. Žižek embodies, with humour and skill, a new form of intellectual elite, décomplexée, cosmopolitan, an old Europe at ease in the globalized world, looking at the ‘Americanized’ West with a mix of condescension and awe, amusement and fear. Žižek knows all too well that Europe – even the idea of Europe – is neither a model nor a pride. Nevertheless, he seems to remain incorrigibly faithful to its old humanist ideals. He writes in chapter 34 and thus concludes the book: ‘The way I see it, Peterson is much more of an optimist – he thinks that capitalism will be able to manage its problems; while I think that we are approaching a global emergency state and that only a radical change can give us a chance.’ (188) Žižek’s self-professed ‘lesser’ optimism is still an optimism, even more so, a ‘radical’ one, both untimely and timeless: it is, to quote his 2008 book title, ‘[a] Defence of Lost Causes’ in the face of triumphant capitalism – a rather admirable, secularized commitment to hope and collective salvation.
Following Žižek’s own lead, a film reference will conclude this review. The Squid and the Whale, Noam Baumbach’s 2005 film which follows the breakdown of an upper-class Brooklyn family of four as the parents separate. In a most memorable scene, the complacent and morally-compromised father, Bernard, an English professor and not-so-successful writer, disparages his ex-wife’s boyfriend Ivan – a visibly younger, fitter tennis instructor – and explains to his teenage son: ‘Ivan is fine but he’s […] a philistine. […] It’s a guy who doesn’t care about books and interesting films and things.’ Žižek today may embody, more or less willingly and happily, a Bernard-like ‘collective father’, erudite yet threatened, never missing a chance to diagnose and disparage our ambient mediocrity – he would also probably relish in unpacking all the psychoanalytical implications of this improbable ‘parental’ responsibility. Let’s heed, then, his ‘fatherly’ advice: in a capitalism-induced ‘philistine’ world of Marvel-dominated cinemas, internet memes, Tweet-length journalism and social media-atrophied public spheres, ‘let’s start thinking’ (Žižek 2012) and caring about books and interesting films, with Slavoj!
3 February 2021
- 2012 Don’t Act, Just Think Big Think https://bigthink.com/dont-act-just-think