January 16, 2018

Spring preview: The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Žižek


This week, as 2018 kicks into high gear, we’re offering previews of some upcoming books we’re excited about.

In these troubled times, even the most pessimistic diagnosis of our future ends with an uplifting hint that things might not be as bad as all that, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, argues Slavoj Žižek, the so-called “Elvis of critical theory,” in The Courage of Hopelessness, it is only when we have admitted to ourselves that our situation is completely hopeless—that the light at the end of the tunnel is in fact the headlight of an oncoming train—that fundamental change can be brought about.

Here’s the passage that opens the book, which hits shelves on February 6th.

Disturbances in a Cupola

In Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic horror movie The Black Cat (1934), the opposition between the Bela Lugosi character (Werdegast) and the Boris Karloff one (Poelzig) is the one between the two modes of the ‘undead,’ both referring to the previous screen images of the actors — Lugosi is the spectral survivor obsessed with the traumatic past, while Karloff is a machine-like monster, i.e., we have the vampiric undead versus the Frankensteinian monster (this is clearly discernible from their acting: Lugosi’s Dracula-like mannerisms versus Karloff’s wooden gestures). The entire film thus points towards the final theatrically staged sadomasochistic torture scene, in which Lugosi starts to flay the skin off the living Karloff. Is this opposition not that of the class struggle reduced to its minimum, the opposition between the aristocratic vampire and the proletarian living dead? So what form does this flaying take in our times?

In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza, Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the ‘humanitarian’ issue of the refugees — class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by liberal-cultural topics of tolerance and solidarity. With the Paris terror killings on Friday, 13 November, 2015, even the refugee crisis (which still refers to large socio-economic issues) was eclipsed by the simple opposition of all democratic forces caught in a merciless war with the forces of terror — and it is easy to believe what has followed: paranoiac searches for ISIS agents among the refugees, etc. (the media gleefully reported that two of the terrorists entered Europe through Greece as refugees). The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be refugees themselves, and the true winners behind the platitudes in the style of Je suis Paris will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not just by engaging in pathetic shows of anti-terrorist solidarity, but by insisting on the simple cui bono question. There should be no ‘deeper understanding’ of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of ‘their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to European brutal interventions’): they should be characterized as what they are, as the Islamo-fascist obverse of the European anti-immigrant racists — two sides of the same coin.

But there is another, more formal, aspect that should give us pause to think — the very form of the attacks: a momentary brutal disruption of normal life. (Significantly, the attacked objects do not stand for the military or political establishment but for everyday popular culture — restaurants, rock venues and so on.) Such a form of terrorism—a momentary disturbance—mainly characterizes attacks on developed Western countries, in clear contrast to many Third World countries in which violence is a permanent fact of life. Think about daily life in Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon — where are the outcries and declarations of international solidarity when hundreds die there? We should remember now that we live in a ‘cupola’ where terrorist violence is a threat that just explodes from time to time, in contrast to countries where (with the participation or complicity of the West) daily life consists of uninterrupted terror and brutality.

In his In the World Interior of Capital (2013), Peter Sloterdijk demonstrates how, in today’s globalization, the world system completed its development and, as a capitalist system, came to determine all conditions of life. The first symbol of this development was the Crystal Palace in London, the site of the first world exhibition in 1851: the inevitable exclusivity of globalization as the construction and expansion of a world interior whose boundaries are invisible, yet virtually insurmountable from without, and which is now inhabited by the one and a half billion ‘winners’ of globalization. Three times this number are left standing outside the door. Consequently, ‘the world interior of capital is not an agora or a trade fair beneath the open sky, but rather a hothouse that has drawn inwards everything that was once on the outside.’ This interior, built on capitalist excesses, determines everything: ‘The primary fact of the Modern Age was not that the earth goes around the sun, but that money goes around the earth.’ After the process that transformed the world into the globe, ‘social life could only take place in an expanded interior, a domestically and arti cially climatized inner space.’ As cultural capitalism rules, all world-forming upheavals are contained: ‘No more historic events could take place under such conditions — at most, domestic accidents.’ What Sloterdijk correctly points out is that capitalist globalization does not stand only for openness and conquest, but also for a self-enclosed cupola separating the Inside from its Outside. The two aspects are inseparable: capitalism’s global reach is grounded in the way it introduces a radical class division across the entire globe, separating those protected by the sphere from those outside its cover.

The latest Paris terrorist attacks, as well as the flow of refugees, are momentary reminders of the violent world outside our cupola, a world which, for us insiders, appears mostly on TV reports about distant violent countries — not as a part of our reality but encroaching on it. Our ethico-political duty is not just to become aware of the reality outside our cupola, but to fully assume our co-responsibility for the horrors outside it. James Mangold’s Cop Land (1996) is set in Garrison (an imagined New Jersey city across the river from Manhattan), where Ray Donlan, a corrupt Lieutenant of the NY police (played by Harvey Keitel) has established a place in which New York policemen can live safely with their families. When Freddy Heflin, an honest local cop (Silvester Stallone), expresses his moral qualms about Donlan’s mode of operation, Donlan replies:

Freddy, I invited men, cops, good men, to live in this town. And these men make a living, they cross that bridge every day to that city where everything is upside down, where the cop is the perp[etrator] and the perp is the victim. The only thing they did was to get their families out before it got to them. We made a place where things make sense, where you can walk the street without fear, and you come to me with the plan to set things right, everyone in the city holding hands, singing ‘We are the World.’ It’s very nice. But, Freddy, your plan is a plan of a boy, it was made on the back of a matchbox without thinking, without looking at the cards. I look at the cards, I see this town destroyed. Now that’s not what you want, is it?

It is easy to see in what way Donlan’s quasi-ontological vision of social reality is false: the group of policemen create their safe haven by withdrawing from the corrupted Manhattan, but it is their full participation in the corrupted crime universe of Manhattan that enables them to keep crime at bay in their own hamlet and sustain their safe and friendly way of life. What this means is that it is their very concern for their safe haven that contributes to the regular reproduction of crime in Manhattan — and the same can be said for all the participants in the Manhattan crime, with the exception of the lowest-level street criminals. Are mafia bosses also not doing what they do to protect their safe family haven? One should note the circularity of this constellation: the effort to create a safe haven and protect it from the crazy world outside generates the very world it tries to protect us from. Do we not encounter exactly the same paradox in Song-do, a new city for quarter of a million inhabitants built out of nothing close to Seoul’s Incheon airport in South Korea, a kind of supreme ideological manifesto in stone? In his report ‘Song-do, the Global City Without Soul,’ Francesco Martone describes how Song-do is built

on 6.5 square kilometers reclaimed from the sea, by a human hand that alters boundaries and morphologies. It would eventually host 250,000 and is rapidly becoming a trendy location to the extent that various soap opera stars moved in to what they would like to see as the Beverly Hills of the East.

As it stands now, however, the city is composed of almost empty futuristic buildings, a few bikers rambling along its wide avenues, construction sites active around the clock. Canals filled with merchant vessels in the background. Walking among these high-rise buildings made of steel and crystal, semi-deserted roads waiting to be filled with cars, is like living in a Truman Show of liberalism with no limit […] A sort of ‘city-state’ where investors enjoy all sort of exemptions, from tax breaks and beyond. A plastic and virtual performance of extreme liberalism, the reification of daily reality, of nature transformed into a consumption commodity, the impossible equation between a Green New Deal and growth, fake stones and trees plucked on at sand, battered by gusts of wind, icy cold in winter, steaming hot in summertime […]

Song-do is today considered and boasted [of] as the show-case of ‘green economy,’ built at the cost of the displacement of a delicate ecosystem where as many as 11 species of migratory birds, among them the ‘Platalea Minor,’ used to live, a site of major importance for the Ramsar convention. Supergreen zero-emission powerplants turn sea tides into energy, destroying fragile coastal habitats. Paradoxically, the world’s biggest tidal wave powerplant, the Siwha Tidal Powerplant, has been registered by the Clean Development Mechanism, set up to reduce emissions and generate carbon credits. ‘A Conflict of Greens: Green Development versus Habitat Preservation — the case of Incheon, South Korea’ is the eloquent title of an article that pointed to the contradiction between green capitalism and ecology. What sort of ecological conversion is possible in an artificial place, where rights are subject to the rule of market and finance? A place that pretends to be a laboratory of a Green New Deal, antiseptic and without soul?

It’ll be those urban extraterritorial spaces, such as IFEX and many more, developed ‘in vitro,’ suspended in space and time, black holes where exemption from labour legislation and tax breaks are the rule, that will represent the new frontier of wildcat liberalism, fuelled by the expoliation of resources elsewhere in the world. The fact of the matter is that Song-do is currently one of those ‘extraterritorial’ spaces, akin to the Export Processing Zones that together with tax havens draw a parallel geography of power, a cobweb of parallel gov- ernance, away from public scrutiny, that envisages no anomaly or alternative […] So, Song-do, designed by planning firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, is a city that can be reproduced anywhere in the world, with its Central Park, its World Trade Center, its canals that evoke a futuristic Venice, a technopark and a biocomplex. Electronic closets in hotels offer various options to guests, from automatized enema to butt massages at varying temperatures. Supermarkets sell cosmetics produced with the genetic manipulation of stem cells, to whiten the skin and nurture the illusion of eternal youth.

This new form of a city is, to put it blandly, neo-liberal ideology embodied, an impossible combination of market economy exempted from the state control with the usual ‘progressive’ ecological, educational and health concerns, the result being a ‘green’ environment built on a ravaged natural habitat. To get a full picture, one need only imagine a gigantic transparent cupola (similar to the one in the films Zardoz or Elysium) to keep the city safe from its polluted environs, plus transgender toilets to guarantee that all forms of segregation are left behind (in a city which is itself a segregated area).

The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Žižek
PAGES: 320
ISBN: 9781612190037
ON SALE: February 6, 2018