Reviewed by Tim Walters
Slavoj Žižek’s Trouble in Paradise concerns itself with an ambiguity inherent ‘in the basic political choice we are confronting today. Cynical conformism tells us that emancipatory ideals of more equality, democracy and solidarity are boring and even dangerous, leading to a grey, overregulated society, and that our true and only paradise is the existing ‘corrupted’ capitalist universe. Radical emancipatory engagement starts from the premise that it is the capitalist dynamics which are boring, offering more of the same in the guise of constant change, and that the struggle for emancipation is still the most daring of all ventures. Our goal is to argue for this second option.’(4) While this is certainly well-trodden ground for Žižek, Trouble in Paradise is a worthwhile contribution to his corpus for two reasons. Most notably, it is in important ways unique as a sort of late career introduction to his entire oeuvre, functioning as something of a recap of his ideas about contemporary radical politics, and so possesses significant utility to those unfamiliar with, but curious about, the Slovenian’s thinking. For those already familiar with Žižek, the book’s interest primarily resides in its currency—we get to see him directing his idiosyncratic brand of Marxian analyses at crises of capitalism that are unfolding today—and in his ongoing struggles to more fully think through and productively integrate his relatively recent commitments to communism as ‘the only horizon from which one can not only judge but even adequately analyse what goes on today,’(26) as well as to the contentious necessity of a Master to help us toward revolution.
As Ernesto Laclau notes in his preface to The Sublime Object of Ideology, ‘[t]his is not a book in the classical sense; that is to say, a systematic structure in which an argument is developed according to a pre-determined plan…. It is rather a series of theoretical interventions which shed mutual light on each other not in terms of the progression of an argument, but in terms of what we could call the reiteration of the latter in different discursive contexts.’ (Laclau 1989: xii) One of the formal features that distinguishes Žižek’s writing in English from that of his contemporaries is the extent to which this is true not just as regards his individual books, but of his remarkably prolific output as a whole: as far as formal considerations go, it has arguably become his defining feature as a philosopher. His ideas invariably develop paratactically, coiling back upon themselves, morphing to integrate and explore connections between new ideas, political or economic events, cultural products and phenomena, and so forth.
This consistent tendency is exacerbated by the multiplicity of venues in which Žižek works out his theory. There are, of course, the big books, typically on some feature(s) of the Lacan-Hegel-Marxian theoretical triad so central to all his thinking, all of which presume a more than passing familiarity with Continental philosophy and which routinely constitute brilliant additions to this tradition. Somehow, these appear more or less every two years, and most recently include Absolute Recoil (2014), Less Than Nothing (2012), Living in the End Times (2010), In Defense of Lost Causes (2008), and The Parallax View (2006).
There are also the shorter and less widely read specialized interventions, which focus on more particular subjects, but which reflect obsessions that recur throughout Žižek’s work: film (monographs on Hitchcock, Kieslowski, Lynch), radical politics (edited introductions to works by Lenin, Mao, Robespierre, and Trotsky), multiple books on Christian theology, and opera.
The third (and most widely read) broad category of publications are typically attempts to orient Žižek’s theoretical preoccupations toward contemporary geopolitical events. Written in something not far from a quasi-journalistic style, they extend the Slovenian’s conceptual apparatus—usually with a greater emphasis on Marx than on Lacan or Hegel than is found in his other modes—with preternatural haste in the direction of such recent moments as the September 11th attacks (Welcome to the Desert of the Real), the Iraq War (Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle), the 2008 global financial crisis (First As Tragedy, Then As Farce), and the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements (The Year of Dreaming Dangerously). These interventions constitute a natural extension of his writing for The Guardian, In These Times, The London Review of Books, and New Left Review, among others, as well as of his massive number of international speaking engagements, hundreds of which are readily available online as podcasts and video clips, a strange new turn in the history of Marxism and of philosophy but one which has without question widened Žižek’s appeal into hitherto inaccessible demographics, which is no bad thing. These works often possess an immediacy and accessibility that is a considerable part of their allure: leftists get to enjoy at least a glimmer of what all the Žižekian fuss is about—‘The most dangerous philosopher in the West’!— without the prerequisite familiarity with Lacan, Hegel, Marx or the myriad other thinkers his weightier contributions largely assume their readers possess.
Trouble in Paradise fits within this latter category, but it also possesses a practical usefulness that considerably exceeds it, for reasons that directly relate to Žižek’s idiosyncratic lines of thought. It provides a hot-off-the-press analysis of a variety of recent, primarily European, political and economic crises (Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia among others) that he takes to be interconnected or symptomatic of the continuing and accelerating transformation of the global Capitalist system. However, while it succeeds on these terms, showcasing much of the rhetorical vitality and flair for counterintuitive insights that highlights much of its work, ultimately it seems to me that it’s primary value is instead the light it sheds more generally onto the Žižekian corpus.
This returns us to the (perceived) problem with Žižek’s mode of exposition, both within each work and within the increasingly vast body of work en masse, a difficulty that operates on three levels. The first is that the jumpy, circular, restless, digressive analytical style that is no small part of his appeal as a writer and speaker often precludes a smoothly linear development of his ideas. The second, and related, issue is that the frames of his thinking are less narrowly and rigidly defined than those of most other significant philosophers and public intellectuals, and so fit less neatly together at first glance: his theory is less carefully systematic. The third is that his analysis is also both expansively, peerlessly interdisciplinary—another source of the unusual variety of his appeal—and also bleeds across the many forms in which he develops his ideas: the same jokes, examples, anecdotes, quotes, and even entire sections of analysis can be found repeated again and again in lectures, interviews, magazine, newspaper, and journal articles, multiple books, and so forth. As a case in point, Trouble in Paradise is an elaborated version of a talk given at Kyunghee University in Seoul in October 2013 (which is available online), several sections of which are repeated verbatim in Absolute Recoil (published only months after Trouble in Paradise) and contains many passages that will be very familiar to Žižek completists from multiple earlier books and speeches. While I have never quite understood the strong objections some critics have to this strategy of Žižek’s, as it is clearly a strategy rather than a function of intellectual laziness or of careless self-plagiarism as some have asserted, in concert with the aforementioned two other challenges that arise as a symptom of the specific peculiarities of his body of work, it is reasonable to ask: is Trouble in Paradise a sufficient development of his thinking to make it worth the attentions of the Žižek enthusiast, and what does it offer to the relative newcomer to Žižek’s work?
I will address the second question first, since it speaks to the primary appeal of Trouble in Paradise. While Žižek has shown considerably more interest than most of his contemporaries in making his ideas widely available to a mixed audience, his willingness has been undermined by the stylistic challenges I articulate above: for someone new to his work, who wants a preliminary sketch of the basic coordinates of Žižek’s thinking from which they can begin to expand more broadly throughout his oeuvre, it’s notoriously hard to find a place to plant a foot. In part, this accounts for the now more than twenty introductory books that attempt to fill this void, all of which aspire to provide in advance that requisite overview of the whole interconnected body of thought than can only otherwise be gained by starting at The Sublime Object of Ideology and working forwards through two and a half decades of profligate publishing. Alas, not everyone has the time. Its ability to fill this void is what is so notable about Trouble in Paradise.
Moreso than anything Žižek has written, this book offers the newcomer an introduction to his critique of modern capitalism and exploration of the part played in this system by popular culture, to his constantly developing solution(s) to the crises generated by Capital, and it does so in an atypically lucid and orderly manner. In its Introduction he claims: ‘This book will proceed in five steps…. We will begin with the diagnosis of the basic coordinates of our global capitalist system; then we will move on to the cardiognosis, ‘knowledge of the heart’, of this system, i.e., to ideology that makes us accept it. What will then follow is prognosis, the view of the future that awaits us if things continue as they are, as well as the putative openings, or ways out. We shall conclude with epignosis (a theological term that designates knowledge which is believed, engaging us in our acts, subjectively assumed), outlining the subjective and organizational forms appropriate for the new phase of our emancipatory struggles. The appendix will explore the impasses of today’s emancipatory struggle apropos of the last Batman film.’ (4-5) Such claims to linearity are commonplace in Žižek’s writing and lectures, but seldom adhered to, and never so fully as in Trouble in Paradise, which excels as a broad summation of the parameters of his thinking on radical politics today, and which will serve the novice reader well as a necessary, orienting entry point into the longer and more theoretically dense works.
Those already comfortable within Žižek’s theoretical matrix will also find much of value in Trouble in Paradise, which shows developments in his thinking on many of the subjects that have increasingly caught his attention in the last decade or so: the structural role (and revolutionary potential) of the categories of unemployment and debt today, the seemingly interminable economic crises besetting the Eurozone and attendant rise to prominence of ‘Capitalism with Asian values,’ the inability of liberal democracy to solve the grotesque excesses generated by capital, and the notion that only a Master, motivated by a properly communist understanding of our current moment, can lead us to a better future. He is savage in his rejection of contemporary austerity politics and the related notion of individuals as ‘entrepreneurs-of-the-self,’ and in his dismissal of capitalist philanthropy or tax reform as solutions. As ever, he has no patience for reformists who desire revolution without revolution, or for those who practice various forms of ‘pseudo-activity’ that he believes ultimately serve primarily to stabilize the capitalist system.
What he does call for is characteristically divisive, exhilarating for those of us who think he’s largely got it right, and providing much to outrage those who have long perceived in Žižek’s work the spectre of totalitarianism and a persistent and dangerous flirtation with a fascism of the left. He is passionate and forceful in his claims for the absolute necessity of perceiving the economic sphere as a totality in the Marxist sense, and in his calls for a rejuvenation of the idea of class struggle, albeit one which integrates those excluded from and exploited by our systems of labour into the working class. He is committed to Martin Luther King’s ‘axiom of equality’ with this communist ethic as the underlying idea that can cut across apparent divisions, and accordingly makes central the urgency of working to unify seemingly disparate struggles: ‘[w]hat can save us … is only the unity of the struggle for freedom and democracy with the struggle for social and economic justice. This unity, and only this unity, is the universal goal.’(106)
More contentiously, Žižek both retains and elaborates on his conviction to communism in the sense articulated by his friend Alain Badiou: ‘Communism is today not the name of a solution, but the name of a problem, the problema of commons in all its dimensions—the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problema of our biogenetic commons, the problema of our cultural commons (‘intellectual property’), and, last but not least, commons as the universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution, it will have to deal with these problems. This is why, as Alvaro Garcia Linera once put it, our horizon has to remain Communist—a horizon not as an inaccessible ideal, but as a space of ideas within which we move.’(214)
While this horizon provides the theoretical framework of Trouble in Paradise and indeed of much of Žižek’s recent analysis, he remains adamant that we ultimately need a Master to help compel us take the revolutionary leap required to move us closer to the communist ideal, and the final two chapters of the book are largely devoted to exploring this figure and the conditions of its emergence. He rejects the notion of waiting for the development of a ‘molecular self-organizing multitude’ (182), asking ‘is this myth of non-representative direct self-organization not the last trap, the deepest illusion that is most difficult to renounce?’(181) Rather, he argues, the current interrelated crises of capitalism, and especially those in the titular ‘paradise’ of the most wealthy parts of the world, are fertile ground for the emergence of figures that will help reshape the coordinates of the imaginable and the possible: ‘a Master figure is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is here to enact an authentic division—a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the change that is necessary.’(179) Žižek concludes, in full vanguardist flight, calling for a ‘Thatcher of the Left’ who is capable of shifting the foundations of the entire politico-economic field toward the communist horizon, motivated (like Che Guevera) by revolutionary love and revolutionary hatred: part Barack Obama, part Winston Churchill, part Charles de Gaulle, part Hugo Chavez, part Baron Munchausen, part Steve Jobs, part Marek Edelman, part Christ, and part Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. So while in important formal ways Trouble in Paradise is Žižek for everyone, it bears acknowledging that a considerable part of his appeal is precisely that Žižek’s revolutionary dreaming is not for everyone.
17 June 2015
- 1989 Preface The Sublime Object of Ideology S. Žižek (London: Verso).