Daily Book Review: Trouble in Paradise

Sunday, October 11, 2015 - 4:48pm

It is said that a philosopher’s work is his life, and personality and biography are irrelevant. But in the peculiar case of Slovenian Communist philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, personality interjects.

Described in The New York Times as the “Elvis of Cultural Theory,” Žižek occupies a fascinating place in public life: the celebrity philosopher, a role which he uses and abuses with relish. Among his many provocations, he has told students that they'll get an A if they spare him the agony of reading their shitty papers; he has written a catalog for Abercrombie and Fitch, where half-naked youth graze in an idyll of flowers and Hegelian dialectics. He has also hung a picture of Stalin so it’s the first thing one sees in his apartment (at one point in this book he writes, “better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state”). Furthermore, he has starred in documentaries (“The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” is on Netflix) where he applies generous layers of Marx, Hegel and Lacan to Hollywood classics.

Inevitably, this Falstaff of philosophy lends himself to caricature, in which his critics indulge. However, Žižek’s books fascinate as much, if not more, than the man, and if they don’t quite turn readers over to Communism, they’ll compel them to question their basic political assumptions. There’s a reason he has been called the most dangerous philosopher in the West. His latest work “Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism,” released in the US after publication in the U.K. last year, is no exception.

In “Trouble in Paradise,” Žižek tackles his usual suspects: Western neoliberal capitalism — or capitalism with a human face. He covers the possibility of ecological catastrophe, popular entertainment, global protests, political cynicism and indifference, globalization, the Arab spring, the 2008 financial crash and, of course, the possibility of a Communist emancipatory revolution. He supplements them with some new characters: the suicide rate in South Korea, Psy’s music video for “Gangnam Style,” WikiLeaks and “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer,” among others.

Žižek fills this book, like his others, with his favorite jokes. Many of these, which come from sources like the Marx Brothers or the Soviet Union, are repeated elsewhere. In fact, many of the book’s ideas have been discussed in his previous work, which is partly redundant, yet a fair summation of his thought. For new readers, “Trouble in Paradise” provides a cogent, concise introduction to Žižek’s work. For veteran readers though, it could be a tiresome echo.

The “paradise” in the title is Francis Fukuyama’s infamous idea of the End of History, posited after the fall of the Soviet Union. The End of History stipulates that, after the collapse of the USSR, Western liberal democracy became the final form of human government. However, Fukuyama would later drop this idea. Žižek believes that, despite the many apples produced by neoliberal capitalism, few — about one percent — are satisfied, and we need a change: “Radical emancipatory engagement starts from the premise that it is the capitalist dynamics which are boring, offering more of the same in the guise of constant change, and that the struggle for emancipation is still the most daring of all ventures. Our goal is to argue for this second option.”

The “guise of constant change” is liberal progressivism. A fervent lover of the counterintuitive observation, he believes that liberal progressives — not Reaganite Republicans — keep capitalism functioning because they refuse to admit systemic problems. They just want to tinker with the system and solve the local problems. Thus, liberalism becomes a way of delaying a necessary political crisis, of staving off any emancipatory event.

Žižek has a manic intelligence and an encyclopedic mind. It is characteristic Žižek's writing to cover as many topics as possible, to gather as much of culture as he can into his critique. The result is a curious farrago of high and low culture, equal parts Batman and Marxist theory. His prose style is schizophrenic; readers can start a sentence in Lacanian theory, detour through “The Sound of Music” and end up in Brazilian favelas. He doesn’t so much write as ramble — but it’s a shockingly lucid rambling. He rarely gets lost in the labyrinths of his erudition.

While “Trouble in Paradise” is neither as long nor as arcane as some of Žižek’s other works, such as “Less than Nothing” or “Absolute Recoil,” the book can get tiresomely technical. However, what sustains it is Žižek’s brilliant evaluations of the contemporary world’s political situation, like the turmoil in Greece, communist-cloaked capitalism in China and the Arab Spring and Mubarak’s fall in Egypt.

“Trouble in Paradise,” and all of Žižek’s work, would benefit anyone who gives it a read. He’s one of the few heterodox political thinkers in a placid sea of orthodoxy. At times, he may come off as ridiculous, but at least he is troubling the water.