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Review: Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (updated paperback edition)

Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, updated paperback ed. (New York and London: Verso, 2011).

The philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has put reviewers of his latest book, Living in the End Times, in an awkward position. In a profile in the Guardian shortly after the release of the original (significantly shorter) hardback edition, he expressed deep misgivings about the more popular political and cultural commentary that has done so much to make him an academic celebrity. In particular, he singled out Living in the End Times for critique, dismissing huge chunks of it as “bullshit.”

I did not find Living in the End Times to be “bullshit.” As a long-time reader of Žižek’s work, however, I think I have some idea of why he might think it was. A huge part of Žižek’s appeal, it seems to me, is not simply the jokes and pop culture references that he sprinkles throughout his work. Rather, it is the great enjoyment and satisfaction that he clearly derives from his theoretical work. For him, working through the complexities of Hegel is not a boring task that he artificially spices up with off-color stories or movie references. It’s fun, and the other fun stuff naturally grows out of it.

From this perspective, making a joke isn’t merely a way to relieve the tedium of philosophy, but an integral part of the theoretical task—in fact, one could even say that for Žižek, the most radical and insightful philosophy is always structured as a joke. The philosophers he favors traffic in paradoxes, unexpected connections, and stunning reversals, constantly remaking their thought and challenging their readers to do the same.

At his best, Žižek does that as well, and that is what won him the academic notoriety he has more recently parlayed into a “public intellectual” status. Yet in his more popular works, such as Living in the End Times, he tends not to challenge himself to move his thought forward. Instead, he’s essentially telling the same jokes to a new audience, or developing jokes in the same general style, over new topics. That may be boring from Žižek’s point of view, but it’s necessary for reaching a new audience in a meaningful way.

From this perspective, Living in the End Times may actually be Žižek’s most successful popular work to date. In fact, the very things that make it seem so boring to him are actually what make it so useful for those approaching Žižek for the first time. Living in the End Times essentially provides a review of the main points of Žižek’s philosophy—his critique of contemporary liberal ideology and his attempt to develop a revolutionary alternative—in dialogue with pressing contemporary concerns.

Though he does refer to very recent pop culture and political examples, the problems that Žižek addresses are sadly likely to prove durable: environmental crisis, growing economic inequality, problems surrounding intellectual property, and advances in science that challenge our sense of what it means to be human. These are the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that threaten to destroy the contemporary capitalist system, inspiring the book’s title. Žižek’s analysis of our culture’s attempt to deal with this crisis is framed according to the familiar “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), providing some overall sense of order.

Despite this “official” organizational framework, Living in the End Times is, like most Žižek books, less a coherent, unified work than a collection of ideas and reflections. This time, however, the pace is less manic, his explanations are more thorough, and the connections he draws are more explicit than they have been in the past. In fact, reading this book, I sometimes felt like I was reading a new Žižek—if his work for popular audiences has (in his view) slowed his development as a thinker, it has arguably been very good for his development as a writer.

Simply for this reason, Living in the End Times is valuable even for those who are already very familiar with Žižek, as he presents many of his long-standing concerns more clearly than ever before. In particular, his discussion of the link between capitalism, liberalism, and nationalism (a major theme of his work since the early 1990s) is put forward here in a refreshingly straightforward way, as is his attempt to develop the implications of Christian theology for revolutionary politics. In addition, the book does contain some notable steps forward, particularly in his understanding of Marx and in his engagement with cognitive brain science.

More importantly, however, Living in the End Times provides Žižek’s own best introduction to his thought for those who are approaching him for the first time. The book brings together most of the main themes of his own philosophy, and Žižek’s discussion with pressing contemporary issues clarifies the all-important “so what?” question more clearly than his academic works.

From this perspective, the somewhat scattered nature of the book is actually an advantage, as it allows readers to dip in and out, focusing on topics that are of particular interest to them—and every reader will surely find something of interest in a book that includes everything from a detailed analysis of Kung Fu Panda to a meditation on the various worst-case scenarios for global warming.

In fact, the reader of Living in the End Times is likely to learn about much more than Žižek. I personally learned a great deal about the history of the Soviet Union and the structure of the Chinese state, as well as various revolutionary movements in Latin America that get very little attention in the Western press.

More than that, though, I enjoyed myself while reading this book—and I suspect that despite his frustrations with the demands placed on a “public intellectual,” Žižek enjoyed himself while writing it as well.