Kotsko, Adam, In These Times
WITHIN THE LAST few years, Slavoj Zizek has gained a name for himself as a political commentator. After his essay on 9/11, "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," he steadily increased his popular writing, publishing in seemingly every possible venue (including In These Times) in response to virtually every major news story. Meanwhile, Zizek was said to be hard at work on another long book, The Parallax View, which he was already claiming as his magnum opus months before its recent release.
Frankly, a magnum opus is exactly what Zizek needs right now. His performance as a public intellectual has met with decidedly mixed reviews, with much of his new audience wondering if they should take his counterintuitive and often outrageously provocative assertions seriously. At the same time, many of his long-time readers have grown impatient with Zizek's failure to produce more work of the caliber that made his academic reputation in the 1990s.
Zizek is known for his frequent use of film and pop culture, his huge range of philosophical and literary references, and his obscene jokes-all packaged in over-arching metaphors involving something like a rollercoaster (or in one particularly bizarre case, a mulcher). The Parallax View includes all of these things: extended riffs on the Matrix trilogy, a section on Henry James' prose style, a Hegelian approach to sexual positions, a highly questionable analysis of anti-Semitism and a wide array of other digressions, often brilliant, sometimes plodding, with varying degrees of relevance to the topic at hand. More significantly, however, The Parallax View consolidates Zizek's work as a whole and decisively moves it forward.
Zizek uses "parallax" to refer to situations in which the "same thing," when viewed from two different perspectives, presents itself to the observer in two completely irreconcilable ways. A good example of this is light, which can be viewed as both a wave and a particle, with no way of mediating between the two positions. Rather than a conflict of two opposing principles, parallax names "the inherent 'tension,' gap, noncoincidence" of reality with itself.
His ambition here is to develop a new dialectical materialism. The philosophical idea of materialism is simple enough: no God, no souls, etc. Matter is all there is. What a specifically dialectical materialism adds is the idea of the conflictual and inconsistent character of matter itself, in contrast to the idea of the universe as a machine running smoothly in accordance with transparent physical laws. Zizek uses this fundamental insight into the conflictual character of existence to investigate three kinds of parallax-philosophical, scientific and political. (This division allows for, in Zizek's words, "a minimum of conceptual order.")
The philosophy section is the most loosely organized. One chapter expands on his recent work on Christianity. For Zizek, part of Christianity's "subversive core" is the idea of Christian love: "the excessive care for the beloved, a 'biased' commitment which disturbs the balance" of normal reality. The space for this love is opened up by the believer's act of "unplugging" from all social ties in order to be completely faithful to Christ. For Zizek, St. Paul's relativization of all social roles, indicating that the believer does not "belong" to the present order, is a subversive action of refusal. It explains Zizek's interest in Christianity in the first place: This refusal to identify with the present order is a vital precursor to any attempt at revolutionary change.
The science section is the most important: No one is going to be impressed by a materialism, dialectical or not, that cannot make sense of science. Embracing cognitive and brain science-a subject many psychoanalysts have viewed with suspicion-Zizek rejects the idea that science can somehow "go too far" and destroy something essential to humanity, in this case, the idea of consciousness and free will. …