Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Believing Dangerously


The final chapter of Zizek's The Year of Dreaming Dangerously appears to argue that next year and future years must be years of believing dangerously. 

While conceding something to T.J. Clarke's argument that left-wing thinking and acting has "no future" - by which Clarke means, not only that environmental and economic conditions are now such that it is nothing but hubris to imagine that any future lies before us, but also that awareness of our human limitations ought now to prevent us from ever again devising schemes or taking decisions on the basis of theoretical anticipations of what will be - Zizek asks for more. In response to Clarke's call for the rejection of "high style" political theory and philosophical discussion in favour of the kind of "middle wisdom" that operates in particular ways and always with a "tragic" sense that nothing good can be relied upon to follow, Zizek objects: "Is that all one should say (and do)? 

The question, it seems, is a rhetorical one, the implied answer being: "Of course not!" But what else can one say (and do)? Zizek is not about to go back on Clarke's (and his own) basic insight, which is, that the finite, historical nature of human thinking and acting means that the effort to establish rules or principles or foundations for thinking and acting into the future are bound to be so steeped in present conditions that they will require to be re-established in precisely the future they were devised to anticipate and domesticate. But there is something other than thinking and acting, some human capacity that, while also finite and historical, allows us to surpass our finitude and loom larger than history: it is believing

The problem with Clarke, according to Zizek, is that his understanding of the "future" is truncated, limited to the-future-that-comes-from-what-is-now (our future, we might say). But there is another sense of "future," Zizek argues: the-future-that-is-to-come, unpredictably, miraculously (a future, we might say). Of course, Clarke is right in the sense that we have no future, Zizek then says; our future is both almost certainly going to involve mass extinction of life, and deeply veiled against our capacities to anticipate it. But what Clarke misses, Zizek continues, is that there still is a future before us, a future that does not merely follow from what is now but that comes from nowhere, as a bolt from the heavens, marking a shift in the course of things of a kind that, by definition, we cannot now imagine. Zizek admits that contemplating a future requires faith, but a future is not merely an article of faith. For, it also requires of us that we begin, actively, to interpret events around us as signs of a future, much as Kant, to whom Zizek refers, interpreted the enthusiasm of those who looked on at the French Revolution as a sign of our human capacity to be uplifted even against our interests (as a sign of enlightenment, in short). By seeing signs of a future all around us, so Zizek says, we will go to constitute a future, and so overcome the tragic perspective to which Clarke would consign us, which would have us relinquish all thoughts of future. We do not have our future, it is true, but we have a future, if we believe in it and perform our belief.

But this really is believing dangerously, I think. In the first instance, it denies all of the ways in which our future, far from following from what now is in logical, predictable ways, actually, to a large extent, comes from nowhere! History may be ordinary and endemic, as Clarke argues, but it is nonetheless, in its unfathomable complexity, almost totally mysterious. That aspect of future that Zizek has hived off to give substance to his notion of a future, is, therefore, already accounted for in Clarke's notion of future. That is what is surprising and frightening, precisely because it is so ordinary and endemic: our future is a stranger to us; our future is a future. But there are two other reasons for being wary of Zizek's call to belief. The first is that it can only give rise to the kind of with-us-or-against-us mode characteristic of many belief systems, and all too likely to spring up in our future of scarce resources even without Zizek's assistance! The second is that it seems to be another excuse to put our heads into the sand and not admit the many many very convincing interpretations now available of events all around us as signs of aspects of our future (as virtually non-existent) (look no further than the Royal Society for science, on climate change). Zizek warns against the dangers of our growing to love the drama and apocalypticism of our nonexistent future. But we seem so little in danger of that, at present, that it is dangerous, I think, to warn against it.   

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