Ouverture: Living in a Topsy-Turvy World

The question we should ask today is: what kind of apocalypse is announced in the plurality of catastrophes that today pose a threat to all of us? What if apocalypse in the full sense of the term which includes the disclosure of hitherto invisible truth never happens?

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A destroyed section of the Japanese coastal city of Kesennuma, in Miyagi Prefecture, the day after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, March 2011 [ Photo: EPA/REX/Shutterstock ]

Contemporary life is defined by excess. There must always be more, there is never enough. We need a surplus to what we need to be able to truly enjoy what we have. Slavoj Žižek’s guide to surplus (and why it’s enjoyable) begins by arguing that what is surplus to our needs is by its very nature unsubstantial and unnecessary. Following excerpt deported from the author’s most recent book, Surplus-Enjoyment : A Guide For The Non-Perplexed published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel uses the term “die verkehrte Welt”—usually translated into English as “topsy turvy world”—to designate the madness of the social reality of his time. “An example of topsy-turvy occurs when your carefully-made plans got messed up at the last minute and everyone is running every which way with no idea where to go.” Does this sentence from Yourdictionary.com entry for “topsy-turvy” not encapsulate perfectly the basic reversal in a Hegelian dialectical process in the course of which even the best-made projects turn into their opposite—a dream of freedom into terror, morality into hypocrisy, excessive wealth into poverty of the majority? Back in 1576, Thomas Rogers wrote in his A Philosophical Discourse Entitled The Anatomy of the Mind: “Devilish it is to destroy a city, but more than devilish to evert cities, to betray countries, to cause servants to kill their masters, parents their children, children their parents, wives their husbands, and to turn all things topsy turvy.” Three basic relations of domination (masters over servants, parents over children, husbands over wives) are here turned around or, rather, inside out—is this not a succinct formula of Hegel’s thought?

So is the present book yet another one on Hegel? In order to explain the logic of denial (Verneinung), Freud evokes a remark made by one of his patients: “You ask who that woman in my dream can be. Whoever she is, it’s not my mother.” Freud’s reaction (which has since become proverbial) is: the question is settled then, we can be sure it is indeed his mother. I can say exactly the same about this book of mine: whatever this book is about, it’s not about Hegel, and this is not a Freudian denial but literally true. Yes, Hegel is ever-present in it. Even when he is not directly mentioned he lurks in the background, but the topic of the book is exactly what its title says: it’s about how the paradoxes of surplus-enjoyment sustain the topsy turviness of our time.

In an ideological space, different stances get connected into what Ernesto Laclau called a “chain of equivalences”— for example, extreme right-wing conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic get combined with New Age spirituality. Melissa Rein Lively’s focus on wellness, natural health, organic food, yoga, ayurvedic healing, meditation, etc., led her into a violent rejection of vaccines as a source of dangerous contamination. Today, this process is palpable all around us. We live in a weird moment where multiple catastrophes—pandemic, global warming, social tensions, the prospect of full digital control over our thinking …—compete for primacy, not just quantitatively but also in the sense of which of them will count as the “quilting point” (Lacan’s point-de-capiton) which totalizes all others. Today, the main candidate in the public discourse is global warming, while lately the antagonism which, in our part of the world, at least, appears as the crucial one is that between partisans of vaccination and vaccine-sceptics. The problem here is that, for COVID sceptics, the main catastrophe today is the fake vision of the (pandemic) catastrophe itself which is manipulated by those in power to strengthen social control and economic exploitation. If one takes a closer look at how the struggle against vaccination condenses other struggles (struggle against state control, struggle against science, struggle against corporate economic exploitation, struggle for the defense of our way of life…), it becomes clear that this key role of the struggle against vaccination is the outcome of an ideological mystification in some aspects even similar to anti-Semitism: in the same way that anti-Semitism is a displaced-mystified form of anti-capitalism, the struggle against vaccination is also a displaced-mystified form of class struggle against those in power.

To find a way in this mess, we should perhaps mobilize the distinction between apocalypse and catastrophe, reserving the term “catastrophe” for what Anders called “naked apocalypse.” Apocalypse (“an uncovering” in Ancient Greek) is a disclosure or revelation of knowledge; in religious speech, what apocalypse discloses is something hidden, the ultimate truth we are blind to in our ordinary lives. Today we commonly refer to any larger-scale catastrophic event or chain of detrimental events to humanity or nature as “apocalyptic.” Although it is easy to imagine the apocalypse-disclosure without the apocalypse catastrophe (say, a religious revelation) and the apocalypse catastrophe without the apocalypse-disclosure (say, an earthquake destroying an entire continent), there is an inner link between the two dimensions: when we (think that we) confront some higher and hitherto hidden truth, this truth is so different from our common opinions that it has to shatter our world, and vice versa, every catastrophic event, even if purely natural, reveals something ignored in our normal existence, places us face to face with an oppressed truth.

In his essay “Apocalypse without Kingdom,” Anders introduced the concept of naked apocalypse: “the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs (of the ‘kingdom’).” Anders’s idea was that a nuclear catastrophe would be precisely such a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom will arise out of it, just the obliteration of ourselves and our world. And the question we should ask today is: what kind of apocalypse is announced in the plurality of catastrophes that today pose a threat to all of us? What if apocalypse in the full sense of the term which includes the disclosure of hitherto invisible truth never happens? What if truth is something that is constructed afterwards, as an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe?

Like to find the answer through Zizek’s brain, click here to have your copy.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder (OR Books, 2021) and Surplus-Enjoyment: A Guide For The Non-Perplexed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

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