3 March, 2014Issue 24.4PhilosophyPolitics & Society

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Engaging the Event

Karthick Manoharan

Event
Slavoj Žižek
Event
Penguin Books, 2014
£8.99
224 pages
ISBN 978-1-846-14626-8


What happens when a profound philosophical treatise is released to the public? What happens when a scientific discovery is made, like heliocentrism or evolution by natural selection, which makes previous knowledge on the subject redundant? What happens when one falls in Love, with a capital L and with a special emphasis on ‘falling’, which renders all other relationships profane? Indeed, what happens when something brings about a change “of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it” and the fragile balance of the existing order is radically challenged, altered, or even destroyed? You are witnessing the spectacle of the Event.

Slavoj Žižek’s Event, the second book in Penguin’s ‘Philosophy in Transit’ series, is a racy ride through the concept of ‘Event’, what it signifies, and the multiple ways in which it is approached. While Event is, as the book’s cover claims, a commute-length book, the journey through the book is not as simple as it seems. Some chapters require a careful reading and at least one revisiting if the meaning is not to be lost. Having said that, Event is Žižek’s most accessible book after First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009) and is a must read for those seeking a quick peek into what Žižek has been trying to do in the past decade. What is more radical about Žižek than his original thoughts is the original way in which he presents the thoughts of others to his readers. In this book, Hegel and Lacan, Lars von Trier and Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton are used to show how far from the Real the general perception of reality is. Event is also a shortcut for those who want to know what Badiou’s Being and Event, a dense and brilliantly confounding work of continental philosophy, is about, but who are petrified of going through the pain of reading it.

Event with capital E is different from the event of Chaos theory where (as Chaoticians claim) a butterfly flapping its wings in New Jersey may trigger an earthquake in Tokyo. It is, in other words, different from the idea that all events are significant since everything is interconnected in a web: Event has more to do with things that compel us to question the nature of this web and what the missing connections are. As such, it is more concerned with the quest for the big Truth than everyday truths or facts. Event is not what happens in reality but something that shapes our subjective perception of the Real, which differs from reality as it is concerned with phenomenological questions while the latter is to do with the empirical. Simply (by Žižekian standards) put, “the ultimate Event is the fall itself, the loss of some primordial unity and harmony which never existed, which is just a retroactive illusion.”

Though Žižek still keeps Stalin’s portrait in his home, his divergence from classical Marxism has been getting more pronounced over the past few years. If he appears in his magnum opus Less Than Nothing (2012) as a full convert to Hegelian thought, Event is loaded with enough Hegelese to make orthodox Marxists squirm. Yet, they cannot miss his message for the real Evental act of radical politics which is “the intervention into social and ideological relations which, without necessarily destroying anything or anyone, transforms the entire symbolic field”.

Considerable sections of the book are dedicated to discussions of Buddhism. As a challenge to Western Orientalists who conjure images of Buddhism as a religion of peace and harmony, Žižek argues that the Buddhist emphasis on detachment is by itself a call to be dispassionately brutal, since the act of violence is performed at a distance. What is remarkable about state brutalities in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka, besides the horrors that the victims endure, is the minimal dissidence or the total lack of it within the political community of the perpetrators. If, as Žižek observes, “the path towards Buddhist Enlightenment begins with focussing on the most elementary feeling of ‘injured innocence’, of suffering without a cause”, the Buddhist who stands by as a neutral spectator while his/her fellow perpetrates violence has no reason for remorse since the original sin was that of the victim who had offended the innocence of the Buddhist community. And now, should it come as a surprise to learn that Heinrich Himmler was greatly inspired by Herman Hesse’s Buddhism-based novel Siddartha?

Žižek could have elaborated more on the persistence of pre-Evental phenomena. Why do certain Events, which may influence us to handle the Real differently, fail to produce progress or even slip into regress? Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (1987), for instance, was truly Evental in being a definitive declaration of the death of theatrical superheroism. Despite the novel’s critical acclaim, it did little to effect a challenge in reality to the popularity of traditional superhero portrayals like the insipid Batman series. Worse, the Hollywood adaptation of Moore’s work by Zack Snyder subverted the original through its sympathetic portrayal of the most mediocre character, Rorschach, the villainisation of the dynamic Adrian Veidt, and an ending that was didactic, involving none of the complex ambiguities of the original. So, how Evental is an Event if it is unable to cure us of what Sartre would call “bad faith” and what Žižek would term “fetishist disavowal”? Why does God live on after God is dead? While Žižek adroitly uses movies such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) in his explanation of the phenomenon of the Event, it would be fascinating for him to consider Watchmen in his future writing because not just the work itself, but also its genealogy would be a good subject for a theory of the Event.

Love is another big theme addressed in the book and is considered an Event in itself. Indeed, some of the most exciting pages in this short book are those with passages on Love—some of Žižek’s most popular videos on YouTube are on this subject. In his praise of the life-altering nature of Love, Žižek follows the traditions of Western theology and classical romance. In the book, the Slovenian makes a grand claim that there are but three key philosophers of Western metaphysics—Plato, Descartes, and Hegel—a claim which is likely to be hotly contested and debated. Taking the risk of a similar exaggeration, in my opinion, three key figures can be identified in the history of Love as an idea: St. Augustine, who explored the unconditional nature of divine Love, or agape; Shakespeare, who elucidated the simultaneously ephemeral and eternal nature of mortal Love; and finally, Žižek, who conceptualises mortal Love as an act of divine violence, an Event where “an Absolute intervenes which derails the balanced run of our daily affairs”. It is maybe for this reason that he is considered ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West’.

Karthick Manoharan is reading for a PhD in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.