Thursday, 26 November 2009

Apocalypse Now: Slavoj Zizek at Birkbeck College

Arriving some forty minutes before the scheduled start time, the room was already packed full. I just about managed to get one of the very last available seats, by inconveniencing several other attendees, having them get up, shuffle about and excuse me, as I slipped through to the centre of the row. Within minutes, the aisles at the side, and the back of the room were full of people standing, jostling for position and murmuring in anticipation of the man who has been called "the Elvis of cultural theory." 

With about twenty minutes still to go before time, a man who looked so much like a university lecturer he could have been in an episode of The Young Ones bellowed to the crowd that anyone without a seat would have to leave due to fire regulations. People started jeering their dissent, a man who had travelled all the way from Birmingham asked if the college would refund his train fare. One wag in a seat at the front cheered, "Let's all leave!" Pretty soon people started shuffling together, going two to a seat to fit people in (including, mercifully, our friend from Brum).

After such auspicious beginnings, it was almost a surprise to see Slavoj Zizek and his comedy sidekick, Costas Douzinas (truly the Cannon and Ball of critical theory) take to the dais entirely without fanfare, no stentorian announcer in a dickie-bow and tails, no trumpeting herald, no spotlight. Stripping off his fleece to reveal a brown v-neck t-shirt, already caked in sweat, Zizek announces that he is "tired of the old stand-up routine of the latest jokes and attacks on liberalism," before warning us that today's lecture will be mostly very boring and journalistic, with a lot of Hegel at the end. The crowd remain, undaunted, aware that this is just a part of his patter, his self-confessed tactic to "First kick the guy, then comes the theory - but kick him violently, and in the head."

Today's lecture, dramatically entitled 'Apocalypse Today' (a promise or a threat, I wonder), kicks off with Zizek identifying the three modern horsemen of the apocalypse: the techno-digital, the New Age, and the Christian fundamentalist, of which the last of the three is both the most dangerous, the most ridiculous, and also the closest to any kind of desirable emancipatory politics. The other two, at the limit, seem to pass over into each other, as techgnosis. For increasingly, modern bio-genetics tends towards the creation of entirely new life forms "from the zero level", and computer science, in, for example, Pranav Mistry's Sixth Sense interface, tends towards the direct gestural interaction between computers, humans and physical reality. We become, then, through the aid of advanced technology, like gods.

The important thing for Zizek, though, is neither, like the Catholic church to decry such manipulation as immoral, dangerous and dystopian, nor, like the World Transhumanist Association (now known by the somewhat catchier soubriquet, Humanity+), to triumphantly celebrate our own self-overcoming. In their belief that the rational individual subject will ultimately survive every transformation to then decide ethically and sensibly how to use such bio-technological 'improvements', the transhumanists, for Zizek, are still too humanist. The opposition between techno-dystopia and new age optimism is a false one, the latter but the symptom of the former. We must confront technological change in order to understand it. The true miracle is not that thought might soon be able to directly influence material reality - the miracle is the gap, the distance that allows us to think and reflect.

Zizek has no time, however, for those who speak of the "proper measure", so much but no further ... and mourn the loss of our former organic connection with nature. This has happened three times already, he claims. First, the shift from mythos to logos that Alain Badiou identifies with Parmenides; next, the Christian break with the pagan cosmology; and finally, the modern disenchantment of the Cartesian subject. "The problem is not, my god, we have lost immediate contact with reality - the problem is that we see this as a problem." So, the true apocalyptic threat to society is this will to return to a "holistic civilization" of organic unity, and "restore the balance" with nature.

Of course, despite his opening caveat, we were given our fair share of laughs along the way, frequently with Costas feeding him a line and Slavoj supplying the punchline ("don't provoke me!"), and the usual attacks on liberalism ("Let us always emphasise how Really Existing Socialism was a nighmare, but let's look at Really Existing Liberalism ...":Islamic fundamentalism is the symptom of capitalist globalisation; UNESCO dismissed as "bullshit" at one point), and yes Hegel cropped up a fair bit too. Alongside Zizek's usual set of references though (Freud, Heidegger, etc.), we hear increasingly cited a cast of "friends": "My chinese friends", "My biologist friends", "My friends in Iran", even "My military specialist friends". He remains confrontational, sniggering of his lecture at LSE the next day, "We should go to the bastion of the enemy." In summing up, clearly eagre to carry on talking to anyone who will listen but with Costas, ever the martinet, desperately trying to reign him in, he claims simply, "I just want to create new enemies."