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We can debate about who among the world’s leadership had a grasp of the threat, and in which month, but by February 2020 even casual newswatchers understood that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to become a trial the likes of which nobody had ever seen. In the United States, it baffled the most exaggerated abusers of American English. Imagine shutting down New York — triumphant Broadway, the woeful Knicks, and every impeccable eatery and watering hole one loads up at before or after the shows. Delivery drones and holographic home performances, not to mention virtual business conferences on Zoom, hadn’t yet been widely adopted, so everything was going to stop, and most businesses would have to scale back in a contracted economy without serious state intervention. Armchair Marxists who still browsed members of the Frankfurt School like audiophiles flipping through a stack of old vinyls might have wondered if such a concept as “superstructure” applied to our networked global system, or if late capital had graduated beyond the old categories. Well, the superstructure was getting shut down — all those mere symbols of business as usual that insured that business would go on as usual. While in April mass graves were being dug in obscure Manhattan sandbars, the President was on an emergency call with the commissioners of America’s major sports leagues and the UFC, and in the abbreviated way that the President’s tweets seem to directly jolt the market, surely pro sports composed some kind of comforting edifice required to signal we’re all opened back up.
As the novel coronavirus made its initial journey, expanding out from China to Europe and the Americas, Slavoj Zizek went to work writing a series of columns about Covid-19’s implications, quickly collected into a short book, Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World published by American radical press OR Books. In addition to broad studies focusing on 19th and 20th century continental philosophers, always through the lens of Hegel, Marx, and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the Slovenian theorist also includes in his roughly 50 books similar quick turnarounds on world events like the Global War on Terror, the Arab Spring, and the refugee crisis in Europe. By bridging a gap of over a century by reading Lacan through Hegel’s German idealism, Zizek takes the groundbreaking work Lacan achieved around signs, language, and human desire and makes these concepts more substantial and compelling, daring to risk unabashed claims about the world “out there,” and about history, that are out of joint with more modest scholarship in Western universities. When he confronts issues of race and gender politics, he becomes a lightning rod for controversy, and certainly it doesn’t help that because of his frequent interpretations of Hollywood films and other pop artifacts, along with his tireless schedule of TV interviews and public debates, he enjoys a higher level of visibility than any other philosopher on the planet.
Zizek’s contribution to philosophy would have to be judged on terms set by theorists in the generation preceding him, the founders of what was loosely called deconstruction, who’ve all been more or less discarded, tumbling into the rubble of institutions and foundations they helped pick apart and implode. Beyond this more specialized and out-of-fashion thinking, Zizek’s critique of capitalism’s world domination isn’t nearly as unique, and touches on the main grievances voiced by other leftist scholars and activists. Business interests gain more political influence among world powers, and everybody suffers. Wealth and opportunities get more unevenly distributed, and the environment is destroyed. The key theme in this critique is that the problem is getting worse as the world spirals out of control. How much worse can it get? And yet, Zizek’s most recent intervention, which leans much more heavily on personal experience, introspection, and very general, mild reflections, than his earlier work, has provoked the same unreflective, canned responses from critics.
With little in the way of data about how the pandemic would turn out to affect various nations, Zizek’s book, Pandemic!, connected the dots, placing this crisis where it belongs among other miseries unequally distributed across a patchwork country like the US and throughout the world. It’s easy to dismiss Covid-19 as an anomaly, a random misfortune, and not as a product of the crummy system. But that would be a mistake — a mistake Zizek foresaw and hoped to avoid by staying on message in the struggle to envision a world that doesn’t have to be so foundering and downright mean. “There is no return to normal,” Zizek warns, “the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives, or we will find ourselves in a new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible.”
By virtue of his frequent appearances and web-friendly interviews, his many books, his talent for mashing up hard philosophy and pop culture, his polarizing charisma and noticeable ticks, Zizek has been hyped up, even in America, as no other public intellectual since at least the 1960s. And the hyped-up reception of this figure by other left-leaning thinkers has almost entirely fallen into the same superficial trap, with barely any real engagement with his work. It’s easier to attack his style or his aura, especially by claiming there’s no substance behind it, that it is indistinguishable from Donald Trump’s “fake news.” This critique is aided by Zizek’s own studied claims that, in important ways, surfaces, appearances, masks, and fantasies carry the day. But only in this way does Zizek deserve any parallel with the figure of Donald Trump. Both are lightning rods that induce telling responses from their critics. But in the case of Trump, a born swindler, nothing he says is serious or should be taken seriously. In harrowing times, after a half-hearted impeachment, governors play him at their peril. In the case of Zizek, there is much substance to discuss, as well as many jokes thrown in, but critics opine without hearing him out.
The seemingly automated repetition in responses to Zizek illuminates a language problem that is surely a consequence of how opinions are disseminated and copied and disseminated some more through our interconnected media. In his previous book, Sex and the Failed Absolute (just hold tight past the admittedly click-baity title), Zizek uses the psychoanalytic concept of the big Other, a lynchpin in the network of symbols that guides our interpretation of the world, to describe how differently we relate to the world now that our communications have been digitized. In the analog world, the big Other might be God, and our assigning all the forces at play in our lives to a conscious manipulator can tend toward paranoia. In the digital realm, we sense that same guiding hand, but it actually exists and affects the environment, in the form of Google and ad monetization. The news is subject to contamination, and now arbitrarily censored by private entities on Facebook and Twitter. Of course, the president also claims in a similarly paranoiac way that the media, or the CNN portion at least, tips the scales against him. But just because the media’s behavior conforms to Trump’s paranoia doesn’t mean he isn’t also a scumbag.
Reading Zizek on the pandemic provides the rare opportunity for many readers to engage with a philosopher through a shared experience on close to a global level, at least for Anglophone readers. Again, this is also what so many of his hot takes on Netflix series and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had served in previous texts. Zizek came of age in the former Yugoslavia under Titoist liberalization, in opposition to the Soviet Union, and, in 1990, he ran as the Liberal Democratic Party’s candidate for the four-person collective presidency, at that time, in Slovenia. (Like many of the plot summaries he analyzes in his recent books, I borrow shamelessly here from Wikipedia.) His status as a provocateur places him in the only available bucket afforded influencers in the web age, giving him little more truck than wacko alt-right figures. Pedigree, intellectual or otherwise, is indistinguishable from brand, which is increasingly legislated through digital channels and social media rankings.
Public intellectuals are the easy targets of TV pundits and quick takes, because that indistinguishable sludge is another chaos-creating element of the ideological reinforcement of capital, Zizek might contend. The world where Zizek constructs his ideas is actually in his books, and the time spent reading and thinking about longer-form writing is anathema to the culture. Zizek’s body of work is frequently written off as repetitive or incoherent, the shorthand version of his controversial views dismissed out of hand. But his writing and strategies do vary from book to book and make him an unquestionably dynamic thinker, if his books are read and thought about. His writing is always lively, although sometimes the multi-pronged support for some of his theses are grinding. He’s a supreme example-giver, threading the same Freudian concept like drive or symptom through biblical and cinematic texts until arriving at a personal anecdote from his Yugoslavia upbringing. After only a few pages, you might not entirely know what Lacan intended with a term like la langue, but you have a handle on how Zizek uses it in his system. At the very least, you’ve encountered a new way of interpreting an old Hitchcock movie, a Henry James novel, or a New Testament parable. Because of their roots in German idealism, Zizek’s philosophical views are sweeping and provocative by design. He doesn’t shy away from hot topics of the day, and his aggressive rearrangement of widely held truths is unsettling. For instance, Zizek strongly condemns all corporate altruism and especially philanthropic missions by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates because they address needs that should be taken care of by state agencies that have been undercut by the same billionaire class. He goes further and also sharply skewers cause-based consumerism, the companies that pledge to donate a portion of sales to make consumers feel better about their purchase.
Even if the books by the thinker are read, and some of the material absorbed, it’s still fashionable to reject the philosopher-as-meme for no good reason anyway. A good recent example of the automatic Zizek review generator came, after Pandemic!, from the aptly named Buzzfeed. The source isn’t necessarily where philosophy departments turn first, but Zizek is still news, even as a meme. Like the famously short Lacanian sessions, the write-up is a quick one, and accurate. It’s just sandwiched in a pro forma takedown and concludes with a superficial pan that undermines the fact that the reviewer gets it, but he’s got four other pieces of content to churn out that day. There’s no real dissonance between Scott Lucas’s Buzzfeed summary and his subject of ridicule. The reviewer simply hedges everything with a headscratching “although.” He cops to the book having a central argument. In sum: “Because of the coronavirus, the world’s capitalist systems will necessarily need to be replaced.” If words mattered, where are the censors? Lucas then claims Zizek “takes great pains to make his proposals seem reasonable to a less-than-communist reader,” and follows with a list of reasonable moderate proposals like opening up healthcare across national borders and introducing a universal basic income — proposals so moderate that some of the same ones surfaced in this year’s Democratic debates. The measures, even though they would spare millions of lives, are deemed ridiculous because they’re offensive to business as usual. The review ends with the flailing implication that Zizek’s bookish pleasure in quarantine, and his depiction of the pandemic as a stimulus for necessary change, comes at the expense of a body count and proves Zizek’s Stalinist bloodlust, when in fact his intentions are the opposite.
A kind of public consensus about Zizek’s uselessness is evident even in positive reviews. For the culture mag The Point, in a co-authored review, Gal Katz and Elena Comay del Junco run down the rap sheet. “Starting with his critique of the liberal response to the 2015 European refugee crisis, through his anti-#MeToo and PC provocations, to his unabashed debate with Jordan Peterson, Zizek has been gradually pushed to the slightly less than respectable margins of public philosophy,” they write. Zizek is a universalist and downplays the epistemological boundaries between people of different cultures, insisting that individuals from different walks can more or less get each other, especially through the use of humor. This view, of course, immediately disqualifies him due to the prohibition against racist and sexist jokes. He insists in interviews, and in his writings about jokes, that such locker-room talk is welcomed by the other party and often returned, that un-PC discourse is a time-tested way of bridging cultural boundaries. He’s written hundreds of pages, if not thousands, on the subject. Even if his true intentions can never be fully known, the record shows a series of genuine philosophical investigations into ontology, history, psychology and language, and in no way appears to be a denier of racial prejudices or gender bias. Yet suspicions of prejudice persist, in line with what is recounted in The Point.
Is Zizek fatigue or disenchantment just another valid move forward in understanding root causes to the injustices of our times that might be missed by a nostalgic Soviet holdover in his seventies, or is this new critique of Zizek a sign of further capitalist entrenchment within the academy and marketplace of ideas? Several years ago now, at the tail end of Obama’s first term, Benjamin Kunkel framed the Zizek problem as a reticence that might hopefully recede, though it hasn’t yet. “Zizek,” Kunkel wrote,
isn’t exactly to blame for his press, much less for the failure of the media to pay similar attention to other left-wing thinkers. Even so, his intellectual celebrity has seemed a symptom of the very intellectual impasse he has diagnosed. A ruthless criticism of capitalism, it turned out, could still be contemplated outside the academy — but only on condition that it appear as the work of a jester or provocateur.
With his pandemic book, Zizek has shifted gears yet again, proving that his reputation as a provocateur, although persistently top-of-mind with his critics, is shortsighted. Facing a time of immense loss, the chapters exude an eerie calm and religious self-assuredness in its basic premise. By Marxist standards, it’s mild and moderate. Where it excels is in delineating the paradoxical workings of contemporary society.
In the week that I first curled up to read about the pandemic in Slavoj Zizek’s Pandemic!, Amazon workers were striking in Staten Island and doctors were talking to the press against strong prohibitions from their for-profit hospitals. The president of the United States had recently floated the idea of quarantining its third largest state, and the governor of that state referred to the proposal as an “act of war.” Spiking infection counts in New York City and a lingering winter chill encouraged shelter in place. Toilet paper and disinfectant were AWOL from store shelves.
In March, the Dow had hemorrhaged. Professionals were sentenced to work from home and bartenders to call the overwhelmed Department of Labor all day from home. Later gains in the market suggested that, for the time at least, a good many traders thought that was bottom. There was plenty of time to brood over why the market callously began to rebound. Was the initial selloff based on America doing nothing and losing 2.2 million or more lives to coronavirus? Did the later “flattening” of the freefall suggest that the federal response to a global pandemic, whatever it was, was enough to contain the outrage against its insufficiency, that the audacious commitment to “free market” principles that resulted in PPE rationing for hospital workers and limited surveillance in testing demonstrated the passing of a kind of stress test, that exhausted pandemic survivors had seen the system at its ugliest, in the full light of another crisis, and decided yet again to accept it?
The reluctance of some Americans and politicians to accept the enforcement of mask wearing, following basic scientific principles about the transmission of Covid-19, demonstrates a flight from the material world into the imaginary. It’s not enough to call this a flight from reality, however, because the realm of the imaginary is an integral part of reality in consumer culture and market logic. Zizek reports these fantasies not just from Marx’s research on the commodity and reification, but traces them further back to English utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, and even in the necessary fictions discussed in some of Plato’s dialogues. In Zizek’s meandering and rich book on Hegel, Less than Nothing, he describes this operation rooted in appearances as a distinction between Schein (an illusionary appearance that could be defective) and Erscheinung (appearance as phenomenon itself). Appearances aren’t just the false obfuscation of actual real things — we know from publicity and advertising that products and politicians are sold all the time based on how they appear, sometimes in direct opposition to what they do. Businesses that appear to treat employees and their communities fairly don’t really have to, because they continue to operate in a deregulated environment in which labor interests have been beaten back for generations. Business practices that work collectively to lower the standard of living for workers and lobby to reduce government services have done so without consequences. Consumers continue to buy things and settle for shittier jobs, while their taxes are used to subsidize the executive class and billionaire owners. Those who propagate this status quo have only been rewarded for doing so. The consequences haven’t been made their problem. Early on, reading the tea leaves in what was known at the time about Covid-19, Zizek concluded that the old system would be pushed beyond its breaking point. “Market mechanisms will not be enough to prevent chaos and hunger,” Zizek writes. He cites the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, when the British state continued its trade practices and exported food to other countries that could have kept millions of Irish from starving. “We hope that a similar brutal solution is no longer acceptable today,” he warns.
This is an exceedingly mild observation from a leftist critic of current western policy that has already suspended market mechanisms with wholesale intervention to save businesses in what is aptly called “corporate welfare.” The hint of brutality is quite evident when the giveaways are only made in the name of saving jobs: the businesses get the money directly, but regular people have to work for it, and only if that money ever trickles down in the creation of a new position. A corporation that is powerful enough to corner the market isn’t in favor of keeping it free, or in funding the campaigns of politicians who want to give smaller fish an opening. Therefore, leaving the Covid cleanup to market mechanisms would be cruelly hands-off at such an urgent time. Meanwhile, the “free market” remains dogma in public discourse, signaling that most people are left in the dark while the president and his handpicked cronies distribute vast sums of wealth without adequate oversight. Market logic is broken, but people born into capital still need permission to think differently, even as the world around them already operates as its dystopian opposite (“capitalism” as reverse socialism to create greater wealth disparity instead of mitigating it).
In the extended first wave of infections that continued to spread across the United States in spring and summer, the world got to see the signs, if not the actions themselves, of such barbarism and neglect by the chaotic federal response. While shuttered at home or forced out into inadequately surveilled communities to perform what was deemed “essential” work, Americans were treated to the ugly intensification of preexisting conditions as they pertained to socio-economic disparity, access to food and healthcare, lack of leadership, all amounting to a breakdown in democracy and liberty that had little to do with whether shoppers at Target were forced to wear masks. Only conservative defenders of the status quo would fight non-issues like basic public safety and adequate public assistance during an unprecedented disaster. Back in April, Zizek’s interpretation about the necessity of change could read like a foregone conclusion. People wouldn’t tolerate the amount of cruelty that would be required to withhold the necessary change to cope with the pandemic. But as the pandemic wears on in the US, Zizek’s predictions turn ominous specifically because the commonsense changes are still being avoided.
Zizek’s pure idea of the pandemic, articulated at a cozy point in time before American life experienced its drastic consequences, couldn’t anticipate the viral counterrevolution, how pro-business American politics would refuse to change. Any gesture of state action now is branded as a personal favor directed by the benefactor-in-chief, right down to the tedious detail of getting his smudgy John Hancock on paper stimulus checks. Not enough of the president’s critics recognize the symbolic potency in his innate deflections and dodges. Trump doesn’t just say the wrong thing, he says precisely the wrong thing. He attacks healthcare workers FEMA should be protecting, and the markets go up. He isn’t Putin’s puppet, he’s neoliberalism’s knave. His job, far from governing, is to articulate with every PR pratfall that government is the problem.
As dimwitted as he was, George W. Bush drew ire from conservatives when he campaigned, twenty years ago, on an admission that “government should do a few things and do them well.” In this extremely late, neoliberal period, Bush would be driven out by the less-than-communists.
As Zizek explains in interviews and public talks, he advocates for a strong state. He believes there are some tasks in a modern society that government should carry out without a song and dance — water, electricity and other utilities, for instance. By lowering expectations, officials in this cruel time make a big to-do about services that should simply be provided, no questions. As in one of Chris Rock’s old controversial routines, these officials demand special praise for doing “what they’re supposed to do.”
It gets uglier during the pandemic, in a time of mass casualties. Trumpeting that millions more would have died if the federal and state governments did nothing is like the airline industry bragging that they brought millions of passengers safely to the ground instead of doing nothing. Private enterprise has aggressively eliminated every alternative form of human capability and replaced it with its own limited government-backed supply chain and methods. If it can’t handle the job, that system needs to step aside. People are dying. Test kits should be as readily available as Big Macs. If not, one has to assume they don’t want you to have one.
Individual states had outbid one another for life-saving equipment. Then they bargained the human toll necessary to reopen barber shops and Cheesecake Factories. A month earlier, Zizek had warned “the virus will shatter the very foundations of our lives.” Unless, he could have added, society is willing to sacrifice some of its most vulnerable to maintain the dregs of the old way.
Zizek has written about many of these subtle ideological programs at length. He carries forward Louis Althusser’s theory on spontaneous ideology in nearly every one of his books. A certain “fetishistic disavowal” is at play that allows agents (for communism, as well as for any state-supported ideology, including capitalism) to carry on with the ideology in a ritualistic way while convincing themselves that they’re not brainwashed participants. That, at least, would describe the more passive existence within a regime during “good times.” However, the competitive struggle for power and wealth under the current global capitalist regime has come to a head in more brutal violent ways that only Americans, at a privileged seat near capital’s central command, can possibly afford to ignore. The way it’s worked up to this point in history, in a globalized world, is that those who have the power and resources to make selfish decisions have been able to export the consequences of those decisions to make other people suffer far away. There has never been a more abstract debate than that over justice, how people ought to be treated. Not only sickness, but secondary effects to guard against it, in the shutting down and reordering of everyday life, are now up in everybody’s face.
So Zizek restates the case using Covid. He explains, “Measures that appear to most of us today as ‘Communist’ will have to be considered on a global level: coordination of production and distribution will have to take place outside the coordinates of the market.” The need for collective action that Zizek highlights as a natural feature of the pandemic brings out the most barbarous resistance in capitalist hardliners because they know that doing the right things will significantly change the self-centered culture and policies of the world capitalist leader. Zizek observes:
The first vague model of such a global coordination is the World Health Organization from which we are not getting the usual bureaucratic gibberish but precise warnings proclaimed without panic. Such organizations should be given more executive power. While US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is mocked by skeptics for his advocacy of a universal healthcare in the US, isn’t the lesson of the coronavirus epidemics that even more is needed, that we should start to put together some kind of global healthcare network?
This is communism? The return of Stalin? Zizek calls himself a Christian atheist, the modern philosopher’s answer to the claim that Jesus was a socialist. The essence of political discourse during late capitalism lies in a lack of substantial opposition to capital. Zizek’s training as a psychoanalyst moves him to identify symptoms to root systemic causes that don’t always seem obvious to those caught up in the dominant neoliberal ideology. Those who deny the full impact of the pandemic on society, or minimize its risk and actual human toll, are participating in a larger collective fantasy that ignores the limits of market logic. It’s not Zizek’s fault that the cause is the rapacious capitalist system, which affects all areas of modern life in subtle ways. But this is why even fans of Zizek agree that his books can sometimes get repetitive and convoluted.
For such a prodigious and rich thinker, this book, and the global moment in which it intervenes, comes as the latest in an uncanny sequence. His last book, also out this year, promised to be a summa, a kind of endnote. Sex & the Failed Absolute touched on sex and gender politics, but did much more in perverting Zizek’s digressive form into an upright guidebook to our present human condition than it did in propounding any perverted European white male perspectives on the recent culture wars. With Sex, he intended to set himself straight with a rigid and rigorously argued treatise organized by theorems and corollaries, expounded by scholiums. As with the dialogue between psychoanalyst and analysand, the play is the thing. Zizek eschewed much of his antic playful performances, in situ, in the hopes of stepping back to present an outline of his method. He proposes that this method — dialectical materialism — holds secrets to how the world works — and in Marxist fashion, how workers work. Drawing heavily on Hegel’s dialectics, the ambivalent tensions and connections between opposites, up to and including the existence of positive substances in the world and the opposing negative holes and gaps out of which they seemingly are produced, Zizek graphs these paradoxical mental operations onto three main theoretical structures (“unorientables”) popular in higher-level math: the Mobius strip, the cross-cap and the Klein bottle. To just consider the most widely known Mobius strip, a two-dimensional ribbon is assembled in the shape of a “figure-8” in three-dimensional space such that its entire surface can be traced, uninterrupted, across one side and then its underside. This shape, which can be made with a strip of paper that is twisted once and then attached at the ends into an 8-shaped pretzel, demonstrates a simple conceptual paradox. Following this pattern, one can imagine how an idea or value can seamlessly become its opposite — freedom can turn into thralldom, for instance. Or, perhaps, capitalism can morph into something else, seemingly all on its own.
The most crucial takeaway in any of these mental exercises is that the world around us works in similar paradoxical ways, and understanding this helps us live our best lives. “It is life without theory which is grey, just a flat stupid reality — it is only theory which makes it ‘green,’ truly alive . . . ” And yet the schematics of Sex & the Failed Absolute, which congeal the schematics of dialectical materialism and consciousness in the stretchy shapes of these “unorientables,” is paradoxically frozen or dead, as a book, in contrast to some of Zizek’s other more freewheeling doorstops. Such was its obvious role, however, in freezing his thought, stepping back and taking stock, surely as an answer to critics who suspected that because he moved so rapidly, spinning so many plates, this suggested he was hiding something.
But neither Zizek, nor his chief antagonist, global capital, is hiding anything, not anymore. Trump and his enablers display the ugliness of the system for all to see. The problem is that true defenders of the system deny that Trump is part of it. In dire times, however, we see the system as it is. There’s no relief until a billionaire like Robert Kraft flies in with a plane load of Chinese N95 respirators to drop on the desperate masses.
With American life drastically changed, history is moving. Spending more time indoors, people are watching and taking note. Zizek has long advocated for philosophers to resist providing specific answers, as charlatans might hock, but to set a meaningful frame of reference and to ask the right questions. (This refusal to provide easy answers is another liability his disingenuous critics jump on. But in the rest of the quote above about the good contemplative life, Zizek claims that theory “[brings] out the complex underlying network of mediations and tensions which make it (reality) move.”) Thus, his recommendation on how to receive the pandemic in its present form:
We should of course analyze in detail the social conditions which made the coronavirus epidemic possible. Just think about the way, in today’s interconnected world, a British person meets someone in Singapore, returns to England, and then goes skiing to France, infecting there four others . . . The usual suspects are waiting in line to be questioned: globalization, the capitalist market, the transience of the rich. However, we should resist the temptation to treat the ongoing epidemic as something that has a deeper meaning: the cruel but just punishment of humanity for the ruthless exploitation of other forms of life on earth. If we search for such a hidden message, we remain pre-modern: we treat our universe as a partner in communication.
Easy answers assume a balanced tit-for-tat world that groups can hijack for their own agendas. Think of the infamous remarks made by evangelicals like Jerry Falwell after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, claiming that America was being punished for immoral sex practices. For cultural conservatives, not to mention the liberals who engage them, the eye is taken off the ball. To see an odious playboy like Trump effectively commandeer the GOP without losing those evangelicals should have shown this lie. Any “bathroom bill” that seeks to recognize gender fluidity is ultimately raged over by red staters because of its demonstration of state power — liberal, blue-state influences invading conservative communities. Sex does mean something to individuals, but these relationships are problematic and asymmetrical by nature, requiring close reading and an open mind. In Sex & the Failed Absolute, Zizek grounds current gender and sex debates in the roots of modern democracy and artificial notions of everybody being, at root, the same, in ways that actually do everybody a disservice. Instead of looking at how different, and yet interdependent, people actually are, these relationships are obscured by a false sovereignty modeled by workers and their bad bosses. Zizek is in no way downplaying the sexual assaults that have come to light in the #MeToo movement. Rather, he shows the error in making an absolute monster like Harvey Weinstein a proper villain held as an exception to the unceasing exploitation at work in every employer-employee relationship. Employment is not an option, it’s not a free choice. Especially now with the ultra-exploited, underpaid “essential worker” class. The same goes for sexual assaults in Catholic parishes. Long ago now, Zizek called into question the obscuring of institutional forces within the church for which child abuse and its cover-up stood as mere symptoms of top-down command, the R.C. Church standing as one of the world’s oldest and most toxic examples of patriarchy gone wrong. And yet again, this also doesn’t mean that Zizek condemns most lay Catholics, good clergy, or tenets of their faith.
Far from it, Christian thinkers from St. Augustine to G.K. Chesterton factor heavily in Zizek’s pandemonium of sources, as those same theologians have in the philosophies of secular thinkers Zizek also draws on, like Nietzsche and Alain Badiou. One can’t help but appreciate in Zizek’s new book the renewed and surprisingly gentle approach he takes to the global situation. He acknowledges the great disparity in circumstances that this pandemic has introduced between health workers on the front lines, as well as rescue and delivery workers who do their jobs in unsafe conditions outside, while “the rest of us” stay in and deal with the fallout from a world that, like the premise of a dystopian fiction, has stopped on its axis. The pandemic has intensified the divide between academics like him and those left out in the cold to deal with the consequences of poor planning, systemic failure.
In the US, hypothetical debates about states’ rights and the role of the federal government are being tried with a simple verdict: will there be enough PPE, ventilators, and beds to care for the sick? Will safety measures be coordinated and comprehensive enough to “flatten the curve” so hundreds of thousands of Americans don’t die needlessly? This “pre-modern” thinking, again, is what Zizek coaches us to avoid. But what about the scientific “modern” thinking that also seems beyond comprehension to many Americans, the clear though ominous charts and firm CDC recommendations that attempt to “manage” the pandemic? For one, these instruments of modern management can in no way control the pandemic — every time Trump claims the virus is “under control,” a scientist on TV bursts his bubble. And yet the stock market, which guesses at the likelihood of success for individual companies in the form of stock prices, hasn’t tanked yet from unemployment numbers in the way it did in March when it became clear that the world was being shut down. Trump may sound out of tune with the health experts, but finance is the real vehicle for management, and in important ways legislating, or avoiding, reality. When Trump accuses heroic hospital workers of being greedy hoarders, or purges a self-sacrificing navy captain, he signals that he’s still got people seeing it his way.
Recall in the early morning hours of November 6th, 2016, when stock futures momentarily dropped as Trump made his shocked acceptance speech. Staring at a new layer of un-reality (what British filmmaker Adam Curtis called in his documentary from that time “hyper-normalisation”), a few traders flinched before realizing that what they saw in a President Trump was just that fantasy liftoff required for the good times to continue to roll for a few billionaires, while the rest of the world faced stagnation and climate peril. There might be ways to open the world back up before a vaccine is available next year, but it will be Trump’s job to push people beyond safe, reasonable limits before adequate testing and containment are in place. It’s well known that the vision he sold during his campaign was based on a backward-looking myth of lost American exceptionalism.
The new coronavirus reality changes all coordinates and guarantees that at least some basic reference points in American life will vanish. There is something quite precious and futile, for instance, about Trump’s April call with the commissioners of the major sports leagues, including the NFL, who was once seen as too soft on dissenting pro athletes, and the liberal NBA, whose champions refuse to visit the Trump White House. In a cruel twist, Covid-19 doesn’t favor older people who watch these sports all the time and subscribe to the networks and basic cable stations that broadcast them. The fastest growing sports among the younger “invincibles” are eSports, and even the pro athletes who played the traditional sports before the pandemic now play in video game competitions aired on ESPN.
With Trump as the alibi executive, offset in the public sphere by Andrew Cuomo as the stabilizing voice of reason, the unofficial president of the northern state consortium, nobody expects anything from this chaotic republic. And while Westerners might point to red China’s containment of their epidemic in the Wuhan province as a level of communist state intervention beyond what we free Americans would tolerate, it becomes clearer when taking into account the broad spectrum of political approaches in handling the crisis that Americans’ very low expectations of what their government can do or ought to do is similarly a result of ideology.
Two of the interpretative mechanisms Zizek deploys in his pandemic intervention include Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief and the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” used in Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts mashup Kill Bill: Volume 2. The delay in the US response to the pandemic is inexcusable but understandable. The superstructure network of business interests and pro sports leagues had to get over themselves to fully process the threat to Americans, the natural health threat that forced so many of us against our American nature. We had to be paid to stay at home and avoid sitting at restaurants. Even the meals that we cook in our kitchens have to be delivered to our doors in boxes. Zizek refers to the “Exploding Heart Technique” to signal a deathblow with a delayed reaction, as seen at the climax of Tarantino’s film. Its victim receives the blow, which strikes five different pressure points around the heart, but doesn’t suffer its effects until he gets up and starts walking around. In this way, Zizek suggests that the coronavirus hits global capitalism in key areas that forces it, when it tries to proceed along with business as usual, to act radically different. The open question that remains is how ruthlessly the old antiquated ways will be forcefully imposed on the evolving body politic as it addresses this novel condition.
Christopher Wood lives in New York. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in The Millions, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, Vol 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere.
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