Are Catastrophes Virtual? – Žižek Up Close

Last night I went up to the University of Pennsylvania to listen to Žižek lecture on the virtuality of catastrophes. I kept my fingers crossed that the talk would present some new material, for which it did. I got the impression that his next big work (aside from the Hegel tome) will be at the intersection of ethics and otherness studies. It just so happens that was the topic of my graduate thesis, so I was happy. It also just so happens that out of an audience of over 1,500 two questions were asked, for which mine was one of them!

Here you can watch my question and Žižek’s response. I ask him two questions: one about the tea party, (which he did not answer) and the second about ethics and how to transcend the fragile and sentimentalized mode of engaging the other.

The Precarious Other and the Human

He opened with a nice critique of Judith Butler’s ethical project and conflated it with Levinas’. His primary point was not in and of itself radically new for Žižek, if you follow his ethical theory, however, the connection that he made from Butler and Levinas’ ethics, which he referred to as “precariousness nature of subjectivity” to liberalism and to democratic capitalism was quite new and interesting.

While Žižek himself remains committed to the Lacanian notion of alterity – i.e. that the founding moment of ethics occurs in the encounter with the other. That encounter throws me out of joint, it disturbs me in so far as my desire always remains the desire of the other. Žižek argues that Levinas and Butler actually go to support the same kind of engagement with the other that liberal democratic capitalism supports in its ideological construction of otherness.

The other in the liberal mode is either imbued with a certain fear (the creation of the fundamentalist / terrorist) or the other is to be condescendingly saved (the image of the starving child). The problem remains not so much what the other appears as, but that the very mode of engaging an other that is idealized leads to the creation to and participation in a system of ideological domination over the very conception of alterity.

What Žižek points out is that the liberal hegemonic mode of confronting the traumatic encounter with the other is itself a disavowal of the monstrosity of the other. This then leads one to think that Žižek is after developing a procedural ethics for how to engage the other that does remain authentic, that does confront the monstrosity of the other without disavowing the gaze.

I don’t think he offers such a procedure, however, he did offer some nice pointers. For starters, he pointed out a very interesting connection to a book by Derrida, The Animal the I am reveals how our gaze of the animal is built largely off of the Cartesian premise of the animal as a machine, as an almost soulless entity – but when we look at the animal’s face we are presented with an even more abyssal monstrosity of our own alterity than when we encounter the face of the other human. The animal presents a pure screen to see the encounter with the real that is deprived of any jouissance (desire surplus).

Without getting into the technicalities of Lacanian theory – Zizek referred multiple times to the need for an intervention into the exchange with the other that allows for a fulfillment of this desire-surplus. What I think this implies is that the moment of desire surplus in the exchange with the other can lead to the development of a structured ideological predicament.

This notion of being able to put oneself into the presence of the other, to see what the other would want from me becomes a key point. For Kant, the problem of the human was the very idea that human freedom was turned unto itself. Man is that being who experiences such radical freedom that nature itself is actually turned against man.

Meme’s and Ideology

Any reader of Zizek would know that his notion of the ideological system relies on a very challenging premise – that knowing is not enough. It isn’t enough because we are always caught up in a sort of fetishist disavowal. Perfect example is that if you were to take an average participant in the financial system and tell them that the way that business is conducted will lead to a meltdown, that would not lead anyone to actually change their behavior and opt out of that system.

This remains a major problem of Zizek’s critique, this notion of a herd mentality – because his critique is not simply left to what rational choice theory and game theory could figure out already. Rather, he seems to be saying something much more radical — what I would summarize in the following way:

1. We must escape the confines of legalist answers to the problems of global warming, biogenetics, migration and refugees, and to natural disasters. These problems transcend the capacity of legalistic protocols, and the very notion of positing a systemic critique runs afoul – the reason that it runs afoul is that we are caught in the ideological system itself – although this point ought to be developed at greater length.

2. Humanity must learn to live more plastically in order to begin to escape the ideological confines. For example, the desire to recycle is founded in a particular view of the earth as an entity that we control in some direct way when in reality we are alienated by mother nature to a degree that we fundamentally lose sight of real environmental problems.

What felt most rewarding was the final point made – that with the way of our “expert-based” society we have lost touch with thinking for thinking’s sake. Every discipline is now commodified, is now packaged with an expert risk management association – the world of pure theory is alive and vibrant. It may be the last refuge in a world gone awry.

6 thoughts on “Are Catastrophes Virtual? – Žižek Up Close

  1. When were “we”, as society, ever going about thinking for thinking’s sake? It’s always been a passion for the few. Thinking has never been for everyone.

  2. Does not Zizek himself look, sound and act as though the catastrophy has already occurred?
    Which is to say that he is very much part of the problem and would not have a clue as to what to do about the catastrophy- full of sound and fury and signifying nothing (except his sound and fury)

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  4. You missed the point- we don’t disavow the monstrosity of the other; we disavow our own monstrosity, until confronted with it by unredacted suffering (the gaze of the animal) which we escape by externalizing and trying to displace responsibility. So for example, you think recycling is a ‘distraction’ from ‘real environmental problems.’ This isn’t it at all. Recyling is a way (or your way is to think about ‘real environmental problems’) to purchase the ability to deny. As to the commenter who says: ‘Zizek is part of the problem,’ yes, he’d agree with this to some extent (although what exactly is ‘the problem’- humanity?) but the difference is that he is aware of this in a way that almost no one else is, the rest of us are in extreme denial (the ‘sound and fury’ line translates to: ‘nothing he says can possibly be worthwhile’ by the way; which sounds pretty desperate.)

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