Žižek on Apocalypse, on the Future, and on Obama

In an earlier post, I suggested that few will embrace every element of Žižek’s compassionate-Marxist panacea, but that his analyses of history’s big movements nevertheless remain insightful, often compelling, and usually fascinating. I’ve received a bit of e-flack for reading (and posting on) Žižek, but let me say again that I don’t draw attention to Žižek’s work because I agree with all his conclusions, or with how he gets there. Rather, I read Žižek for many of the same reasons that I read from traditions and centuries other than my own – because I’m grateful for anyone who helps me to think differently about the world, and to ask some different questions about reality and human experience than does the literature I most typically immerse myself in. Apart from all that, reading Žižek is, at times, just such great fun. [Who is this idiot blogger, i.e. me, who feels the need to defend his own reading habits!]

Anyway, that said, here’s more from Žižek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce; this time, on Apocalypse:

‘Apocalypse is characterized by a specific mode of time, clearly opposed to the two other predominant modes: traditional circular time (time ordered and regulated on cosmic principles, reflecting the order of nature and the heavens; the time-form in which microcosm and macrocosm resonate in harmony), and the modern linear time of gradual progress or development. Apocalyptic time is the “time of the end of time,” the time of emergency, of the “state of exception” when the end is nigh and we can only prepare for it. There are at least four different versions of apocalyptism today: Christian fundamentalism, New Age spirituality, techno-digital post-humanism, and secular ecologism. Although they all share the basic notion that humanity is approaching a zero-point of radical transmutation, their respective ontologies differ radically: Techno-digital apocalyptism … remains within the confines of scientific naturalism, and discerns in the evolution of human species the contours of our transformation into “post-humans.” New Age spirituality gives this transmutation a further twist, interpreting it as the shift from one mode of “cosmic awareness” to another (usually a shift from the modern dualist-mechanistic stance to one of holistic immersion). Christian fundamentalists of course read the apocalypse in strictly biblical terms, that is, they search for (and find) in the contemporary world signs that the final battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ is imminent. Finally, secular ecologism shares the naturalist stance of post-humanism, but gives it a negative twist-what lies ahead, the “omega point” we are approaching, is not a progression to a higher “post-human” level, but the catastrophic self-destruction of humanity. Although Christian fundamentalist apocalyptism is considered the most ridiculous, and dangerous, in its content, it remains the version closest to a radical “milenarian” emancipatory logic. The task is thus to bring it into closer contact with secular ecologism, thereby conceiving the threat of annihilation as the chance for a radical emancipatory renewal’. (pp. 93–4)

So what future does Žižek look to?

‘The future will be Hegelian … The only true alternative that awaits us – the alternative between socialism and communism – is the alternative between the two Hegels’.

Žižek contrasts Hegel’s ‘conservative’ vision (which points forward to what Žižek describes as ‘capitalism with Asian values’, as ‘a capitalist civil society organized into estates and kept in check by a strong authoritarian state with managerial “public servants” and traditional values’; he suggests that modern Japan comes close to this model), with the young Hegelianism evidenced in Haiti. He suggests: ‘It is as if the split into Old and Young Hegelians is to be re-enacted once again’. (p. 148)

He continues:

But what are the chances for an Hegelian Left today? Can we count only on momentary utopian explosions – like the Paris Commune, the Canudos settlement in Brazil, or the Shanghai Commune – which dissolve because of brutal external suppression or internal weaknesses, fated to remain no more than brief diversions from the main trajectory of History? Is communism then condemned to remain the utopian Idea of another possible world, an Idea whose realization necessarily ends in failure or self- destructive terror? Or should we remain heroically faithful to the Benjaminian project of the final Revolution that will redeem-through-repetition all past defeats, a day of full Reckoning? Or, more radically, should we change the field entirely, recognizing that the alternatives just proposed simply represent two sides of the same coin, that is, of the teleological-redemptive notion of history? Perhaps the solution resides in an eschatological apocalyptism which does not involve the fantasy of the symbolic Last Judgment in which all past accounts will be settled; to refer to another of Benjamin’s metaphors, the task is “merely” to stop the train of history which, left to its own course, leads to a precipice. (Communism is thus not the light at the end of the tunnel, that is, the happy final outcome of a long and arduous struggle – if anything, the light at the end of the tunnel is rather that of another train approaching us at full speed.) This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement. An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress. In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other … (pp. 148–9)

And, in another place, Žižek offers the following reflection/commentary on ‘Obama’s victory’:

‘One can and should entertain cynical doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: from a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will turn out to be a “Bush with a human face” making no more than a few minor face-lifting improvements. He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus possibly even strengthen US hegemony, damaged as it has been by the catastrophe of the Bush years. There is nonetheless something deeply wrong in such a reaction – a key dimension is missing. It is in light of the Kantian conception of enthusiasm that Obama’s victory should be viewed not simply as another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all its pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came through of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, for that instant of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm was not only the fact that, against all the odds, it really happened, but that the possibility of such a thing happening was demonstrated. The same goes for all great historical ruptures – recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the communist regimes, we somehow did not “really believe” that they would disintegrate – like Henry Kissinger, we were all too much victims of a cynical pragmatism. This attitude is best encapsulated by the French expression je sais bien, mais quand même – I know very well that it can happen, but all the same (I cannot really accept that it will happen). This is why, although Obama’s victory was clearly predictable, at least for the last two weeks before the election, his actual victory was still experienced as a surprise – in some sense, the unthinkable had happened, something which we really did not believe could happen. (Note that there is also a tragic version of the unthinkable really taking place: the Holocaust, the Gulag … how can one accept that something like that could happen?)

This is also how one should answer those who point to all the compromises Obama had to make to become electable. The danger Obama courted in his campaign is that he was already applying to himself what the later historical censorship applied to Martin Luther King, namely, cleansing his program of contentious topics in order to assure his eligibility. There is a famous dialogue in Monty Python’s religious spoof The Life of Brian, set in Palestine at the time of Christ: the leader of a Jewish revolutionary resistance organization passionately argues that the Romans have brought only misery to the Jews; when his followers remark that they have nonetheless introduced education, built roads, constructed irrigation, and so on, he triumphantly concludes: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, education, medicine, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” Do the latest proclamations by Obama not follow the same line? “I stand for a radical break with Bush’s politics! OK, I pleaded for full support for Israel, for continuing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for refusing prosecutions against those who ordered torture, and so on, but I still stand for a radical break with Bush’s politics!” Obama’s inauguration speech concluded this process of “political self-cleansing” – which is why it was such a disappointment even for many left-liberals in the US. It was a well-crafted but weirdly anemic speech whose message to “all other peoples and governments who are watching today” was: “we are ready to lead once more”; “we will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”

During the election campaign, it was often noted that when Obama talked about the “audacity of hope,” about a change we can believe in, he relied on a rhetoric which lacked any specific content: to hope for what? To change what? Now things are a little clearer: Obama proposes a tactical change destined to reassert the fundamental goals of US politics: the defense of the American way of life and a leading role internationally for the US. The US empire will be now more humane, and respectful of others; it will lead through dialogue, rather than through the brutal imposition of its will. If the Bush administration was the empire with a brutal face, now we shall have the empire with a human face – but it will be the same empire. In Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he tried to reach out to the Muslim world, he formulated the debate in terms of the depoliticized dialogue of religions (not even of civilizations) – this was Obama at his politically-correct worst’. (pp. 107–9)

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