Blogs > Cliopatria > Aaron Leonard: Review of Slavoj Zizek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

Nov 21, 2009 4:37 pm

Aaron Leonard: Review of Slavoj Zizek’s First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

[Aaron Leonard is a freelance journalist. His columns and interviews span the gamut from geopolitics to economics to religion. He is a regular contributor to the History New Network and other publications. His writings can be found at]

One of the more interesting books published to coincide with the anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall is Slavoj Zizek’s, “First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.”

The title comes from Karl Marx’s, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” and its excavation of the farce of the rule of Louis Napoleon, last monarch of France and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Zizek tells us straight away that if you think he is writing a polemic against communism, “I sincerely advise you to stop here...Indeed the book should be forcibly confiscated from you.” He is referring to two other events; 9/11 and the financial meltdown of 2008.

For the uninitiated, this is a solid introduction to Slavoj Zizek. Zizek -- in certain intellectual circles -- is something of a rock star. He has made movies, written numerous books and is widely seen as one of the most important philosophers living today. When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union recently the 900 seat auditorium was sold out well in advance.

And he is a certain kind of philosopher. In that regard another quote from Marx springs to mind, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” That Zizek has written a book defending the idea of communism ought to make anyone concerned about the future sit up and take notice.

The book is divided into two sections. The first deals with ideology where he engages in a sharp critique of the current order and its thinking. The second examines the “Communist Hypothesis.”

There is something deeply challenging here. Take for example the gauntlet he lays down to those putting forward the idea that the world as it currently exists is the quintessence of what humanity can achieve. “Enemy propaganda against radical emancipatory politics is by definition cynical -- not in the simple sense of not believing its own words, but at a much more basic level: it is cynical precisely insofar as it does believe its own words, since its message is a resigned conviction that the world we live in, even if not the best of all possible worlds, is the least bad, such that radical change will only make things worse.” Agree or not this is not easily dismissed.

Of the current capitalist order he has quite a bit to say -- not much of it good. For example, he tells us of the recent state of emergency enacted in Italy--part of a trend toward"states of emergency" that is best exemplified in the post 9/11 repressive atmosphere in the U.S.

In Italy the target has been immigrants from Africa. As part of this state of emergency seven Tunisian fisherman were put on trial in Sicily in 2007, charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Their aiding and abetting came about after the fisherman, anchored and asleep, were awakened by screams. They in turn came to the rescue of a sinking rubber boat crammed with people; among them two children and 11 women, two of them pregnant. The actions of these fishermen stood in contrast to another incident in which fisherman had beaten the immigrants with sticks to keep them from boarding -- thus leaving them to drown. The latter case is what the authorities would see as legal and legitimate. That such circumstances exist, or that torture is no longer beyond the pale -- but is something up for debate -- is something Zizek sees as emblematic of the troubling state of things.

At the same time he is a sharp critic of what he calls the “Really Existing Socialism” that manifested itself in the twentieth century, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Some will find Zizek hard to follow at times -- and that is largely a result of a thinking style that pushes at the edges. This is not academic writing, nor is it common sense. And what other student of the French psychoanalyst Lacan do you know invoking “Kung Fu Panda” to elaborate a point?

While the core of his ethical and philosophical arguments are sound -- and in many ways you get the sense he wants these things to just be considered -- it is frustrating this is not fleshed out more. While upholding the communist Idea one does get much sense of how this would be realized -- or how ‘things would be different next time.’

That said this is all on a much different plane than popular received wisdom. It is interesting to contrast Zizek’s skew on things with that of the Wall Street Journal. In their recent editorial commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall they quote George Orwell, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." The paper was referring to the failed utopia of the communist system. Of course the unintended irony is this is fully applicable today. In that regard we are fortunate to have Slavoj Zizek pointing that out.

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