Under my byline

Ideology is not dead

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 16 January 2010

Slavoj Žižek on history: “First as Tragedy, then as Farce”

Three hours into the lecture, the auditorium was still full, the aisles and corners were still packed with reasonably alert listeners, and the lecturer himself was showing no sign of running out of steam. Above the audience hung a faint mist of winter air and sundry exhalations, which may in a more innocent era have been the tobacco smoke generated by an intense discussion on Marxism. Here and now, instead, thin people in casually scruffy clothes and intellectual beards focused on the two figures on the stage.

One figure was slim, cool and austere in black, and belonged to the feminist academic Nivedita Menon of Delhi University. But by far the more arresting figure, on account of its girth, careless dress, gingery-gray untrimmed beard and appallingly white European forearms, was that of the lecturer: the 60-year-old Slovenian philosopher, cultural theorist, author, filmmaker (and so on) Slavoj Žižek. This lecture in Delhi, one of a series delivered around the country at the cusp of 2009-2010, was chiefly to promote Žižek’s latest book, First as Tragedy, then as Farce (Verso, 2009), with which it shared its title.

Žižek is what they call an intellectual rock star. He grew up, studied and worked under the communists in Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia, and is a communist himself, though he makes frequent and merciless digs at the modern Left. Only in 1989 did Žižek get noticed in the West, when he was finally published in English. Now there is a whole journal devoted to “Žižek studies”.

His mass appeal comes in part from the staggering range of his work, which veers wildly between the entertaining and the incomprehensible — often in the same piece. But it also owes to his extraordinary gift for finding and using apt, up-to-date, real-life examples in which all sorts of parallels and contradictions are perfectly captured. With an infinite grab-bag of cultural referents at his command, he is a fantastic speaker and essayist. He can be very funny: so he’s also been called a “stand-up philosopher” and “the Marx Brother“.

This new book is aimed at the general reader, and is one of Žižek’s least theoretical works. But it is no less polemical for that. The title plays on Marx’s idea, after Hegel, that history repeats itself, once as tragedy, and the next time as farce; Žižek glosses that the farce can be more terrifying than the tragedy. Example from his lecture: in Greek theatre, the tragic has dignity. Not so in the Holocaust. Because Jews were periodically lined up to be sorted by the officers at Auschwitz — this one to work, this one to die — some of them quickly realised that it was safer to look healthier. So they “pinked the lips” before they went to the sorting. There’s surely something farcical about that.

And from there to Roberto Benigni’s creepy, gutless comedy Life is Beautiful, to Tristan and Iseult, to Antigone, Slovenian proverbs, Star Wars, Mother Teresa, the AIDS crisis, the China quake and the Three Gorges dam, Buddhism as a hamster, Starbucks… a hypnotising tumble of example which all, miraculously, adds up to something.

It has to, of course. For the villain of Žižek’s story is capitalist ideology. The context is the twin crises of 9/11 and 2008: one killed the “liberal-democratic political utopia”, and the other did in the “economic utopia”. Now is communism’s chance — but we, Left included, are trapped by the capitalist illusion. In book and lecture, Žižek shows capitalist ideology at work and asserts that it cannot raise the solutions to the problems it creates. Book and lecture also lay to rest the notion that ideology is dead, killed by cynicism.

To do the argument justice, you must read the book — it is affordable, which is correct in a leftist text.

First as Tragedy, then as Farce
Slavoj Žižek
Navayana
pp 156

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Here’s a link to the text of Nivedita Menon’s 18-minute intervention, and her response to his response to her response. Don’t miss the comments at the bottom — lively, if dense.

You can buy the Indian edition here.

The Žižek lecture series was organised by Navayana.

The portrait at the top is by (and copyright) Hendrick Speck, from this page.

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3 Responses

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  1. Imad Asaalwa said, on 20 April 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Its very great to see th world again generating all this hegelian marxist thought again into the nature of politics/

    thank you

  2. surendra nath misra said, on 29 July 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Trastan and Isolde,not Iseult.Just a nit pick.Sorry.

  3. Rrishi said, on 30 July 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Er, not in English, where the standard version is Tristan and Iseult. Anyway, it’s never Trastan, is it? What language do you mean?


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