Zizek and the Empty Wheelbarrow

I was just chatting with an old friend who recently landed a job with the UN refugee agency (congrats, N!). Somehow, we got to talking about the balkans, then Slovenia, and finally to that bulwark of counterintuitive popular philosophizing, Slavoj Zizek.

Love him or hate him, i couldn’t pass up the opportunity to preach the gospel of Zizek to my uninitiated companion. To be an equal-opportunity ideologue, here’s one of my favourites:

Slavoj Zizek — The Empty Wheelbarrow

…The ruling ideology appropriated the September 11 tragedy and used it to impose its basic message: it is time to stop playing around, you have to take sides – for or against. This, precisely, is the temptation to be resisted: in such moments of apparent clarity of choice, mystification is total. Today, more than ever, intellectuals need to step back. Are we aware that we are in the midst of a “soft revolution”, in the course of which the unwritten rules determining the most elementary international logic are changing?

The danger the west is courting in its “war on terror” was clearly perceived by GK Chesterton who – in the very last pages of his Orthodoxy, the ultimate Catholic propaganda piece – exposed the deadlock of the pseudo-revolutionary critics of religion: they start by denouncing religion as the force of oppression that threatens human freedom; but in fighting religion, they are compelled to forsake freedom itself, thus sacrificing precisely what they wanted to defend: the atheist radical universe, deprived of religious reference, is the grey universe of egalitarian terror. Today the same holds for advocates of religion themselves: how many fanatical defenders of religion started by ferociously attacking secular culture and ended up forsaking religion itself, losing any meaningful religious experience?

And is it not that, in a strictly homologous way, the liberal warriors against terror are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy? They have such a passion for proving that non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that they are ready to limit our own freedom here and now, in our allegedly Christian societies. If the “terrorists” are ready to wreck this world for love of the other, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other…

…Does the same not hold for the postmodern disdain for great ideological causes and the notion that, in our post-ideological era, instead of trying to change the world, we should reinvent ourselves by engaging in new forms of (sexual, spiritual, aesthetic) subjective practices? Confronted with arguments like this, one cannot but recall the old lesson of critical theory: when we try to preserve the authentic intimate sphere of privacy against the onslaught of “alienated” public exchange, it is privacy itself that gets lost. Withdrawal into privacy means today adopting formulas of private authenticity propagated by the contemporary cultural industry – from taking lessons in spiritual enlightenment a to engaging in body building. The ultimate truth of withdrawal into privacy is public confessions of intimate secrets on TV shows. Against this kind of privacy, the only way to break out of the constraints of “alienated” public life is to invent a new collectivity.

Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing. Every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheelbarrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but it was always empty – till, finally, the guards got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This is the trick that those who claim today “But the world is none the less better off without Saddam!” try to pull on us: they forget to include in the account the effects of the very military intervention against Saddam. Yes, the world is better without Saddam – but it is not better with the military occupation of Iraq, with the rise of Islamist fundamentalism provoked by this very occupation. The guy who first got this point about the wheelbarrow was an arch-intellectual.

Nice. Even if you think he’s off his rocker, he still makes you genuinely think.

And, apropo the Gaza tragedy:


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