IN OUR TIME OF DYING Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, London, Verso, 2010, 415 pp; £20 cloth.
The publication of Slavoj Zizek's Living in the End Times was something of a media event in Britain. An interview with the philosopher and psychoanalyst appeared in the Observer whilst (an increasingly frustrated) Gavin Esler made a commendable attempt at a conversation with the motor-brained thinker on the BBC's Newsnight program. All of which suggests that the book is one of Zizek's more populist offerings. 'Serious' Zizek produces work of such philosophical insight that they cannot be ignored; 'popular' Zizek offers laughs and film references - but without ever obscuring the vital ideas within. This latest offering is no exception to the latter, a wonderful mix of jokes, provocations, popular culture - and a serious message about a series of impending crises being brought about by global capitalism.
The premise of the book is that the global capitalist system is facing a fatal catastrophe occasioned by the ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, the imbalances of the system itself (e.g. struggles over scarce resources), and the rapid growth of social divisions and exclusions (e.g. gated communities, slums). The book is organised into five chapters, each corresponding to Elisabeth K?bler-Ross' famous stages of coming to terms with death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Zizek's hypothesis is that we can see these five stages in the way we (as a society) attempt to deal with the coming apocalypse.
Denial: the way ideology works to mask the fundamental disorder. The first chapter begins with an excellent analysis of the burqa/niqab debate in France that briskly introduces the reader to Zizek's account of denial. We are taught, he says, that racism is a product of intolerance; if only we were more tolerant, the world would be a better place. This is to forget the 'background noise' (p6), an ideological move that would have us ignore the violence that sustains the system. Racism is not the product of intolerance, it is the product of injustice and inequality; tolerance is not the cure - emancipation and political struggle is. The same ideological move, tuning-out background noise, can be seen with recycling: 'we are bombarded from all sides with injunctions to recycle personal waste, placing bottles, newspapers, etc., in the appropriate bins. In this way, guilt and responsibility are personalized - it is not the entire organization of the economy which is to blame, but our subjective attitude which needs to change' (p22). This chapter is easily the strongest; it carries a clear message applicable to a range of supposedly ethical actions that merely allow for the furtherance of wider injustice: charitable donations, bags for life, non-wasteful food consumption, difference politics, and so on. Denial is shown to be the most commonly found stage in our response to the impending death of our way of being, adding urgency to Zizek's argument here but already suggesting that the stages to follow will be less impactful.
Anger: protests/violent explosions in response to the injustices of the system. In a pleasant meander, the second chapter begins with a discussion of What If? histories (brim-full of ideology, as it happens) and passes through a discussion of Radovan Karadzic and the parallax between his identity as war-criminal and as spiritual leader and poet. The most important message in this chapter regards political mobilisation. Instead of offering sympathy for the plight of the excluded, like the liberals, those who want change, says Zizek, should begin by identifying with them. We should not ask why some are excluded from public space but what we are doing included in it. Here Zizek is identifying spaces of exclusion as sites for resistance: 'The crowds in the slums constitute a huge reservoir for political mobilization: if the Left does not act there, who will?' (pl24). …