Frank Hartmann on Sat, 9 Jan 1999 21:49:32 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Staying Alive. Review of: Zizek, The Spectre is still roaming around


Slavoj Zizek: The Spectre is still roaming around.
An Introduction to the 150th Anniversary Edition of
the Communist Manifesto

A review, by Frank Hartmann

Written in the mid nineteenth century, the Manifesto nowadays can be
read as the description of a time which discovered certain functions in
society, such as communications as productive forces. Within this
process, personal worth has resolved into exchange value, and
exploitation is taking on subtle measures, Marx/Engels moan. And
further, how speed takes on social relations ("all new-formed ones
become antiquated before they can ossify") and how the constant
revolutionizing of production goes together with the globalization of
markets. The text does not fail to see communications as a key factor to
modern societies, although the term is connotated in the physical sense,
such as traffic routes (a deceptive meaning prolonged by Al Gores'
conception of the American "information-highways" in 1993).

Related to the "Realpolitik" of the twentieth century, Zizek claims that
any reader today could hold the Manifesto not only for simply wrong on
many empirical accounts, but also clearly falsified by subsequent
historical reality - and yet, its description of early capitalist
reality seems to fit "more than ever" to our reality today. His name
would not be Zizek if he would not suggest to see a "Lacanian
difference" here, basically stating the fact that social reality on the
one hand is determined by the "Real" as in the spectral logic of Capital
on the other. The deficiencies of social reality suits the latter, which
takes on the abstract forms of "virtual capitalism".

However, it is not suggested that this form of capitalism should be a
less "real" one. It is said that, unlike the Socialist's caricature of
the big stuffed capitalist with his cigar, the public image of
capitalism has fundamentally changed and its critics are facing hard
times after losing the good old oedipal master. Firstly, capitalism
could afford to become tolerant for a great many phenomenons, which used
to threaten it's very own existence, starting from a symbolic level on
to culture as such, because certain repressions which were necessary for
its survival long rendered obsolete. And furthermore, the principles of
domination have changed due to the transformation of the public sphere
into an all embracing popular culture.

This is exemplified by Zizek with his comment on the public image of
Bill Gates as an icon of success in our society. Beyond the patriarchal
Father-Master or the Evil Genius deriving from a James Bond movie, or
the incarnation of the Corporate Big Brother, the Bill Gates icon
encapsulates just the average ugly guy next door who made it, that is,
as an "opportunist who knew how to seize the moment". It would be an
illusion to think that corporate power is in the hands of a single
individual. This is an effect of the media, inverting the famous formula
of Marx: "in contemporary capitalism, the objective market relations
between things tend to assume the phantsmagorical form of
pseudo-personalized relations between people".

The diagnosis of the politicization of economy which follows here, with
the prospect of Microsoft dominating the communicational structures of
society stronger than any government could, is one of the shortcomings
of Zizek's essay. With his fascination for films and filmmakers (like a
great many theorists who were intellectually socialized in the
seventies, under the severe dominance of French theory), he seems not to
be all too familiar with new media theory, alternative forms of
technology usage, or the net itself. In his diagnosis of interactive
media, Zizek picks up the term of an "interpassivity" which denotes best
the communicative behaviour "under the condition of the fetishist
disavowal", saying, we know better than taking media reality for real,
and still playing the game - since the show must go on.

This means that the old-fashioned attitude of enlightenment does not
work any more - and psychoanalysis, as Zizek is keen to notice, does not
hold the key to efficient interpretation any longer: the "formations of
the Unconscious have definitely lost their innocence", and so the
framework not granted as such, "the analyst's interpretation loses its
symbolic efficiency and leaves the symptom intact in its idiotic
*Geniessen*." About these idiotic, non-reflective forms of pleasure,
Zizek is very harsh, as shown in his other writings, which are often
quite ignorant of subversive forms within new pop culture.

Beyond subversion, is there any chance for politicial action? The
deadlock of todays left, as seen by Zizek, is the acceptance of loss,
along with the downfall of the symbolics of a male working class ethics
("working men of all countries, unite!"). Not knowing exactly which
principles to follow after having lost the hope or the perspective for a
revolution, nor to be able to insist "to the emtpy form as fidelity of
the lost contents", classical left politics in the face of postmodern
society either becomes a simply nostalgic act or the acts of losers
(Zizek interestingly points out how contemporary English films pick up
this issue).

Since the "real-existing capitalism in ex-Communist East European
countries" could be established, world politics indulge in democratic
enthusiasm further to idealizing new semi-political actors like NGOs,
the Civial Society, etc., even though the dilemma of a market-liberalism
vs. fundamentalism is not being solved but rather avoided by having them
both, as a "distopian realization of this dream" especially in East
Turning regular folks into vulgar consumers everywhere, the triumph of
capitalism becomes as obvious but still not conclusive. This is why
Zizek considers that while the Communist Manifesto does not offer
answers, it still has something to say to us: our society will have to
develop other means than either
-- to trust the "hope that any social antagonisms will be resolved
through the further development of capitalist economy and its political
counterpart, the multiculturalist liberal democracy", or
-- to propagate a "return to traditional values (from Catholic or
Islamic fundamentalism to Oriental New Age wisdom)".

This introduction contains a 78 pages worth reading. Zizek does not
argue academically, and uses pop culture examples, which gives his
writings a kind of sexy appeal. Between established theoretical patterns
and fancy postmodern criticism, he manages to develop a form of
reflection which is, best said, incorruptible.

Zizek Introduction is published in English and available seperate from
the Manifesto. Inquiries:
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