Žižek on the Žhip of Fools Again

How can we dance when our earth is turning
How do we sleep while our beds are burning

– Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning

Musing through Slavoj Žižek’s new anti-tome, Pandemic 2! Chronicles of a Time Lost, his much-anticipated follow-up to Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, I recall reading somewhere in time how Bob Dylan, the Bard of Duluth, used to sit down at the kitchen table, presumably at some sad-eyed lady of the lowland’s place (i.e., Lower East Side soho type), and read newspapers and clip out interesting pieces that he thought would make good subjects for songs.

Reading Pandemic! 2 is kind of like looking over the Bard’s shoulders, in the early tarantella days of his career, as he peruses and muses over some NYT or Post piece about some old ‘defunct’ injustice like police brutality or racial disenfranchisement somewhere out there, away from the kitchen, where the riot squads were restless. Such a habit would account for a couple of stray songs off Desire that probably don’t belong on the same album together — “Joey” (Gallo) and “Hurricane” (Rubin Carter). Or maybe they do. WTF do I know about Mr. Alias Anything You Please, when it comes right down to it, other than what I’ve heard?

Reading Žižek is like that. In Pandemic 1 he was called out of his bed in his ‘jamas and urgently asked to write a polemic against rising pandemic-driven values. He was up to the task. Žižek is always up to the task; he’s not like other men that way. But looking over his shoulder this time, while he was with laptop in bed, it was a little more constricted, as he had Lacan in bed with him now. Reading Žižek this go, sometimes I felt like a ménage à twat. Pandemic! 2 is largely an elaborate exercise in reader-response theory. He makes dialectical love to Hegel using a Lacanian psychoanalytic prophylactic. Noone gets hurt that way and there’s no hard feelings.

Žižek reads a paper, usually the Guardian, because he’s about as Left as the Guardian is, I reckon, and responds with journal-type entries he calls chapters. Then I (sometimes) look up the piece and gauge his response and write a review of his responses, and then you, reader, respond-perform my read of Žižek, trotting out your little totemic dogmas and ideogrammatic nuances — different from mine, and maybe post it to your Facebook timeline, where it becomes a feed to your hungry readership — different from mine, who respond with Likes or retweets, and on and on it goes, reading/responding, until it’s like a case of Narcissus with a small army of Echos ego-riffing at the same time, and nobody can tell who’s Narcissus and who’s Echo. Like Marx said all those years ago: Talk, talk, talk: Where is it getting you? Jeesh, no wonder Žižek is always bananas in his pajamas in the morning.

Well, as Žižek indicated in Pandemic! 1, he was called upon by publishers to respond to the Covid-19 ‘hysteria’ sweeping the world like the Real pandemic behind Corona, and was especially caustic to liberal points of view, who wanted to connect the virus to Trump and his viral influence. In Pandemic! 2, he reiterates:

…we do not need psychoanalysis to explore the “pathology” of Trump’s success—the only thing to psychoanalyze is the irrational stupidity of Left liberal reactions to it, the stupidity that makes it increasingly probable that Trump will be reelected. To appropriate what is perhaps the lowest point of Trump’s vulgarities, the Left has not yet learned how to grab Trump by his p****.

As Žižek points out late in this text, we have seen the rise of the vulgar and obscene with the new populism sweeping the globe, but though the pussy-grabbing St. Grobian was a buffoon; Caligula has yet to come, sow and canker.

Pandemic! 2 is, like P!1, a hoot in its own way. Žižek is all over the place, says things in a way here that makes me wonder about translation problems, or if I’m sane. Acolytes and zealots can work through these serious changes of chord, the way you do at an all-night jazz riffing of horns into the morning, where it helps if you’re high to get to the upper registers of the player’s abstract theorizing. Pandemic! 2 is segmented into 14 chapters of wholesome neo-commie goodness slices lathered with Lacanian pepperschnippel sandwiched between an intro and concluding No Time (To Conclude). Pass the bong.

In his Introduction: Why A Philosopher Should Write About Bringing In The Harvest, Žižek uses the pandemic-driven agro crisis to take a potshot at capitalism. There’s trouble in Gütersloh, a no-doubt paradisiacal town “north-by-northwest” in Germany; there’s trouble in Tennessee, where still waters run deep; there’s trouble in south Florida near MaralagoLand; trouble in Italy and Spain, UK, France, and Russia. As Dylan would croon, “Go all the way to the other side of the world / you’ll find trouble there.” And Žižek surely does:

The same bad smell is spreading all around the world… tons and tons of unpicked fruits and vegetables. Why?…Because of the pandemic, we are faced with a typically absurd capitalist crisis: thousands of eager workers cannot get work and sit idly by while tons of produce rots in the fields.

The stench of change is in the wind. Potter’s field has become a potter’s field for fruit and vegetables. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Our sadness Dooley noted, as Bogie would say.

CNN and Jacobin help Žižek see a new social order emerging from Covid-19’s dialectical masquerade at our expense. He’s careful to point out that the conditions were already there, but 19 has brought our troubles out in bas relief. There’s an upstairs-downstairsing happening. Some of us get to stay home and read self-important philosophy tracts and zoom-bookclub about it, while others have to go out and risk life and lung performing necessary services, trash pick-ups, running pies (pizza), NSA wiretaps (someone has to do it). He writes,

This new working class was here all along, the pandemic just propelled it into visibility…Much of this class is not exploited in the classic Marxist sense of working for those who own the means of production; they are “exploited” with regard to the way they relate to the material conditions of their life: access to water and clean air, health, safety…

Žižek has averred in his Pandemic! franchise that we are in an age of permanent viral interpenetrations: “Just think about all the long-frozen bacteria and viruses waiting to be reactivated with the thawing of permafrost!” I’m thinking.

Consequently, as the Woke viruses come at us, Žižek sees the “new working class” as a permanent feature of our social order, especially as the weaselly upper crust hunker down in the under crust, or, as Žižek puts it:

Expecting some kind of catastrophe, the rich are buying villas in New Zealand or renovating Cold War nuclear bunkers in the Rocky Mountains, but the problem with a pandemic is that one cannot isolate from it completely—like an umbilical cord that cannot be severed, a minimal link with polluted reality is unavoidable.

Beginning to seem like the Time Machine is in our future, Eloi and Morlocks, the fey and the fucked. Ouch.

And then, by way of Yahoo News, Žižek segues into Texas, the lone star state, healthily represented at the recent HeeHaw event in the Capitol, and inexplicably has one Brenden Dilley explain how Texans manhandle the pandemic. Telling the reader that mask-wearing is serious business — in fact, he says, it’s existential! He writes,

Here is how Brenden Dilley, a Texas chat-show host, explained why he doesn’t wear a mask: “Better to be dead than a dork. Yes, I mean that literally. I’d rather die than look like an idiot right now.” Dilley refuses to wear a mask since, for him, wearing one is incompatible with human dignity at its most basic level.

Well, that’s the Lacanian approach to his point of view, and very generous.

But speaking of masks in Texas, which bandits there were wont to wear for ages, there’s a fella that comes to mind out of Galveston, a homeless Black guy named Donald Neely led away by rope by cops on horses, who was going around wearing a welder’s mask. One cop, a nagmare, threatened to drag him. Nobody ever asked him why he wore a welder’s mask. Did he know a mad virus was on the way? Maybe something from across the border, Santa Ana way, his mask a personal Alamo? Did he qualify as a “dork?” one wonders. What would Lacan say? Even Žižek doesn’t explain the mask, the persona, the deep-seated ego flower free-floating on the surface of our consciousness like, well, like a lotus on a pacific pond.

As if to drive his Pandemic!1 point home about our losing ourselves in the romance of disease, some of us seeing punishment for our ecocidal behavior over the years, some of us zooming up to notions of benign lefty change chances ahead, but Žižek warns, through German virologist Henry Streeck, who is quoted in Die Welt newspaper Z.is reading, “[There is] No second or third wave—we are in a permanent wave.”And instead of futilely reiterating these thoughts in Pandemic! 2, Žižek introduces us to the Worldometer. It’s seemingly self-explanatory, but one finds an edge of sadism attached to its referencing, as if Žižek wanted to rub reality in our faces. Full disclosure: I find Žižek wonderfully scatological in this book, but sometimes he seems like a crypto-fascist. These stats in the face are borderline Mussolini. If the birth rate (he shows real time — how I don’t know) is double the death rate, then Covid-19 just ain’t up to the task IMHO. He seems to say.

Žižek continues to see us responding to Covid-19’s almost-luna-like influences on our tidal alpha waves as if we were possessed (I’m thinking Camus, but he doesn’t seem to be), and by way of the Guardian and CNN, chews his cuttlefish over crazinesses happening in Stuttgart and England. He scribbles:

“[O]n June 21 German authorities were shocked over a rampage of an “unprecedented scale” in the center of Stuttgart: four to five hundred partygoers ran riot overnight, smashing shop windows, plundering stores, and attacking police.

Smashed glass in Stuttgarrt to protest racism — like Nazis who’ve broke Abbie gone kristalnachting for the hell of it! Putting fascists on the cattle trains to Disneyland. Ee-Ha.

And similarly, on the beaches of Dover — what’s that? — I mean, on beaches across England, lads and “ladies” were kicking up a sandstorm for no apparent reason, brazenly bronzing while ignoring social distancing. First Brexit, now ‘breaks it.’

Protests, during a pandemic. Can you believe it? Žižek opines that these days there are only two kinds of protests going on — the sentimentalist-driven, retro-Tiananmen Square,

catch-up protests that enjoy the support of Western liberal media; for instance, those in Hong Kong and Minsk. On the other side, we have much more troubling protests that react to the limits of the liberal-democratic project itself, such as the Yellow Vests, Black Lives Matter, and Extinction Rebellion.

Add to that the putsch Trump ‘pushed’ in DC recently that got him naughtily impeached a second time for his troubles, Nancy doing that done-and-dusted thing with her hands and demanding that her podium be returned by the Florida nutjob who nicked it. “What the fuck would a Trump illiterate do with a podium anyway,” she is said to have remarked, her mascara running, as if from her, “Yell duh and doh and dese and Dems?”

Žižek compares these two protest types to the Achilles and the Hare legend made famous in modern times by the Elvis song, “Confidence.” But here the mighty mind of Z. clarifies matters:

If we replace Achilles by “forces of democratic uprising” and the tortoise by the ideal of “liberal democratic capitalism”, we soon realize that most countries cannot get close to this ideal, and that their failure to reach it expresses weaknesses of the global capitalist system itself.

Well, my grandpa used to say: time wounds all heels, and the only reason “slow poke” won that race is because Achilles had a bad heel, but unlike Trump with debilitating toenail problem, Achilles manned up and went to Troy and became a hermaphrodisiac’s delight getting grease-rubbed whenever the movie action lagged, riveting men and women alike.

I dunno, sometimes I get lost in Žižek”s maze, as when he starts talking about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror and referencing “inert, humid matter,” and the next thing you know, as in Pandemic!1, he’s bringing masturbation to the table — again. Quoting Tarkovsky’s father (“A soul is sinful without a body, like a body without clothes.”), and then, BAM: “Masturbating to hardcore images is sinful, while bodily contact is a path to spirit.” End of chapter. Whoa. Let me down easy, Slavoj.

Things get kinkier, as you’d expect them to, when he begins to muse about the future, trotting in Elon Musk’s smelly pigs to hallucidate the situation. Elon Musk’s taken some hits in recent years, starting out as a Flash Gordon, at least in his own mind, then releasing bad vibes into the already traumatized ecology. A while back, Melon asked for volunteers to sign up for a one way trip to Palookaville (i.e., Mars) and 200,000 people signed up for the horrific suicide. Suddenly, he’s like the Pied Piper of Hamelin with the rat problem.Then, he mouthed off about a spelunker who helped rescue Thai children stranded in a watered-in cave, calling the Brit hero “suss” and “the pedo guy” on Twitter. What an asshole. And now, Žižek was worrying us with Melon’s latest seemingly misanthropic venture into pig mind control, no doubt with a view to eventually taking out anyone who didn’t volunteer for his Mars venture.

Specifically, Žižek, reading a piece in the Guardian, is worried that Melon’s Neuralink project could lead to human mind control. Žižek writes, “Musk emphasized the health benefits of Neuralink (skirting over its potential for an unprecedented control of our inner life), and announced that he is now looking for human volunteers.” One minute we got a pandemic and climate change to worry about, with masturbation as one solution, and now you’re thinking asshole’s actually P.T. Barnum and the Mars “success” made him realize people are sheeple when they’re not capitalist pigs (probably the formula is reversed in China). Turns out, Snowball got off easy; what if Napoleon had been named Musk instead? He frets some more,

Both extremes are to be avoided in interpreting the significance of Neuralink: we should neither celebrate it as an invention that opens the path toward Singularity (a divinecollective self-awareness) nor fear it as a signal that we will lose our individual autonomy and become cogs in a digital machine.

Hmph. Fuck it, let’s hook up Melon. He’s not an asshole, he’s a black hole.

There’s more, The Independent tells Žižek that Melon expects human brains to get pigged within 12 months and he predicts human language will be obsolete maybe within 5 years — but that aside, Žižek’s not happy with the ontological and teleological questions raised by such experiments:

Once our inner life is directly linked to reality so that our thoughts have immediate material consequences (or can be manipulated by a machine that is part of reality) and are in this sense no longer “ours,” we effectively enter a post-human state . . . Neuralink should thus prompt us to raise not only the question of whether we will still be human if we are immersed in a wired brain, but also: what do we understand by “human” when we say this?

These are meet, and potato, questions. There’s so much meat in Pandemic! 2 that a good ol’ anti-colonial colonic is recommended, I dunno, maybe some Byron, she walks in beauty yada-ya.

When Žižek takes on Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, my ears are pricked, because Schmidt’s a prick who I had to circumscribe in my review of The Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind, and presumably dropped for omerta reasons), because he proposed hologram machines in “every” household (read: every elite household) that could transport people to other lands and cultures. At one point he suggests, “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” He cites The Intercept’s Naomi Klein taking the mickey out of Schmidt’s notion of another notion:

“to reimagine New York state’s post-Covid reality, with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life. Klein calls this proposal the “Screen New Deal”; it promises safety from infection while maintaining all the personal freedoms liberals care for—but can it work?

And Jeff Bezos is another one. Long ago, when a journalist asked president LBJ why we were in VietNam if even he thought it was a losing proposition, he unzipped and pulled out his johnson, and said that’s why (true story). Bezos is sleazier. He’s like the film What Women Want. Check out a close-up of the Amazon logo shlong. Like LBJ, He thinks we’re all fems. F*ck Bezos. And f*ck Eric Schmidt and his empire of our minds. Over my habeas corpus.

Žižek has fun with movies that speak to our crises. I liked that he brought up Soylent Green, the ironic movie that has the fascist state taking the lefty Green economy to heart by recycling human cadavers into wafers called Soylent Green. Who knew fascists had such a sense of humor? And, returning to a NYT piece on Musk (again), he likes The Matrix, telling us we need to choose, like Neo, between the red pill and the blue pill, which is to say, says Žižek, between Woke reality and ordinary reality. I’m exhausted by the time he points to the coming locusts, and warns that the liberal anarchy of commerce needs to be controlled, and I wonder what Lacan would make of all this, ready to go all Roberto Duran on the whole thing, no mas.

One other bit captures the imagination however. Žižek references the 1958 sci-fi story, “Store of the Worlds ,” which is a tale about the potential interchangeability of reality and wishful thinking, even more so than is our current wont. In the story, he writes,

The eccentric old owner of the store explains to Wayne what he is selling: in exchange for all of their earthly possessions, he temporarily transposes his customers into an alternate reality where they can live according to their most intimate wishes.

A link to the award-winning16-minute 2017 film, The Escape, is included, and is highly recommended.

“Store of the Worlds” recalled, The Veldt, a welcome episode of the film The Illustrated Man, in which a boy and his sister, are given a hologram machine they use to ‘transport’ themselves to Africa, where they hang out with the lions on the savannah, spending more and more time there, until, worried, their parents try to take away the machine. The kids respond by luring their parents into the ‘savannah’ where they are promptly eaten by the lions. Just their clothes remain. I thought of Eric Schmidt and his kids luring their millionaire parents into Mumbai slumdog territory and throwing away the key.

In the end, Žižek shrugs meaningfully at us and tells us we needs must make a choice between our current regimen of the will-to-ignorance (some kind of weird Nietzschean thing, I guess) or choose brave new thinking, blue or red. He concludes with Appendix: Four Reflections on Power, Appearance, and Obscenity. He has left plenty to wonder about and one can only imagine what might be included in the next installment of Pandemic!

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.