New Book: Mad World — War, Movies, Sex

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[Photo: Tengyart/Unsplash]

About the Book: In a characteristically explosive barrage, Ljubljana’s most famous philosopher takes a passionate stance on the war in Ukraine, surveys the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and delivers detonations into a range of contemporary issues, from sexual politics in India to the prospects for a new Cold War. Ever attentive to moments where the bizarre and the epic join forces, among the questions Žižek considers here are: Is the giant orgy, planned to take place in Ukraine in the event of a Russian nuclear attack, really all that morbid? And what should society do, whether on the big screen or the battlefield, in preparation for the end of the world? Agree with him or not, Žižek rarely fails to provoke in a productive fashion. By examining matters through a lens that is bold and original, and often joyfully outlandish, Žižek helps us to better grasp a world in which, increasingly, the dominant motif is one of madness.

The madness evoked in the title of this book is not meant just as the everyday expression we often use but as a more precise indication that we live in an epoch in which we miss what Fredric Jameson called “cognitive mapping,” a global orientation of where we are and where we move. Years ago we were dreaming about a post-ideological world—now we have it, and the absence or irrelevance of explicit ideologies makes things even worse.

How did we come to this point? The main shift is that the opposition between center-Left and center-Right parties as the main axis of our political space has been replaced by the opposition between a big technocratic party (standing for expert knowledge) and a populist opponent with anti-corporate and anti-financial motifs. However, this shift underwent another surprising turn. What we have witnessed lately is something one can only call techno-populism: a political movement with clear populist appeal (working for the people, for their “real interests,” neither Left nor Right), promising to take care of everyone through rational expert politics, a matter-of-fact approach that doesn’t mobilize low passions or resort to demagogic slogans. Academics Bickerton and Accetti write the following on techno-populism:

Technocratic appeals to expertise and populist invocations of ‘the people’ have become mainstays of political competition in established democracies. This development is best understood as the emergence of techno-populism—a new political logic that is being superimposed on the traditional struggle between left and right. Political movements and actors combine technocratic and populist appeals in a variety of ways, as do more established parties that are adapting to the particular set of incentives and constraints implicit in this new, unmediated form of politics.

What once seemed the ultimate antagonism of today’s politics—the struggle between liberal democracy and Rightist nationalist populism—has miraculously transformed into a peaceful coexistence. Are we dealing with some kind of “dialectical synthesis” of the opposites? Yes, but in a very specific sense: the opposites are reconciled through the exclusion of the third term: political antagonism, or the political dimension as such. The unsurpassed model is Mario Draghi in Italy, endorsed as the “neutral” and efficient prime minister by the entire political spectrum (with the significant exception of the extreme Rightist neo-Fascists who are saving the honor of politics), but elements of techno-populism are also recognizable in Emmanuel Macron and even in Angela Merkel.

This reconfiguration puts (whatever remains of) the authentic Left into a difficult position. While techno-populism is the very form of today’s establishment, of the apolitical “neutralization” and political antagonisms, it should nonetheless sometimes be strategically supported as a lesser evil when immediate catastrophes (le Pen, Trump, etc) pose a threat.

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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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