Friday, 6 March 2020

The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously - Slavoj Zizek (2017)

Perhaps the best back-page author photo ever...
Rating: Excellent

The Courage of Hopelessness is my first significant encounter with Slavoj Zizek (pictured), the infamous Marxist, Hegelian and Lacanian philosopher, academic, political activist and writer, among other abilities and pastimes. The back-page blurb indicates that Zizek is arguing that the only way forward is to fully acknowledge that humanity's situation is hopeless. As a recent convert to existential nihilism I have to agree that humanity's situation is dire (and of course it doesn't matter to me if we face extinction). Zizek does indeed argue for such a stance, whether he does successfully is arguable, although he is very convincing. Throughout Zizek also covers a great deal of cultural, philosophical and political issues, so much so that the book demands a great deal of thought and concentration.

Firstly I was surprised by Zizek's academic writing style, which is well structured and rigorous; I had the idea that he'd be much more feral in his approach. The first part of the book, entitled 'The Ups and Downs of Global Capitalism', covers where the destructive impasse of neo-libralism has brought us to, particularly regarding its corrosive effects on democracy, which is both fascinating and terrifying. Zizek is unrelenting in his critique of neo-libralism and it is entertaining stuff indeed. The second chapter in part one, 'Syriza, the Shadow of an Event', covers the Greek economic crisis and its handling by the EU. I learned a great deal, but it was a boring subject that Zizek does not really illuminate in an entertaining way (I could imagine him saying that he's not here to entertain...). Much better is 'Religion and its Contents' in which he examines China, ISIS and religion and its discontents in recent history. It is complex and intriguing and demands re-reading, as Zizek truly is a counter-intuitive thinker let loose within the decay of world civilization.

The second part, again presented in three chapters, ranges widely across such subjects as terrorism, sexual politics and finally comes to rest at the rise of populism. His thoughts on the 2016 electoral battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are insightful and he basically concludes that either option was "the worst option", that a Clinton victory would have produced a situation in which the neo-liberal status quo would have continued on with little opposition. Although Zizek notes that Trump was a grotesquely appalling option, stating that "Trump is the purest expression of...the debasement of our public life."and that neo-liberal forces will rally around him like flies do around shit (which they did), Zizek argues that he will provide an energizing focus for a true alternative to rise from the left, rather than just more apathy and disillusionment. The Courage of Hopelessness was published in 2017 and in the years since you could argue that Zizek was prescient, with focused political and cultural opposition toward Trump's vulgar and damaging political presence emerging from the left and the centre. As the 2020 election political theatre in the USA drags on we have been seeing a movement to the left with Bernie Sanders, but at the time of writing it looks like the centre will be offered up as an alternative to Trump's right-wing freak show in the form of the much maligned Joe Biden. Good luck Joe, is all I can say, you are going to need it! I'll leave you with one of Zizek's best comments about Trump, which is both insightful and darkly hilarious:

"When a man wears a wig, he usually tries to make it look like real hair. Trump achieved the opposite: he made his real hair look like a wig; and maybe this reversal provides a succinct formulation of the Trump phenomenon. At the most elementary level, he is not trying to sell us his crazy ideological fictions as reality - what he is really trying to sell us is his own vulgar reality as a beautiful dream."

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