Zizek’s Event

I picked up Slavoj Zizek’s new book, Event, next to the cash register in the gift shop at the Tate Britain. Philosophy is an impulse buy at the Tate Britain. In this book Zizek takes seriously the theme of the Penguin book series “Philosophy in Transit” in which this is the second volume. His entry in the series is structured as a sequence of stops on a commuter rail line, as if a rapid reader could gobble up each chapter between stops. This may be possible for Zizek, the self-described “manic excessive,” but the rest of us shouldn’t despair at not finishing the book by the time we get to Central London. This book worked very well as a travel book for me, though, fitting into a side pocket of my jacket.

Zizek dashes off the key concept of the book between sentences headed elsewhere: ” . . . an event is thus the effect that seems to exceed its causes – and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its cause.” This is a very good place to start. Hume is nowhere mentioned in the book, nor is Sextus Empiricus, but this definition is worthy of the sceptical tradition of these two. Yes, the Event as gap is a very good place to start. This idea may even go further than the author thinks.

His “stops” are:

1) Framing
2) Felix Culpa
3) Buddhism Naturalized
4) Three Events of Philosophy (Plato, Descartes, and Hegel)
5) The Three Events of Psychoanalysis (the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary)
6) The Undoing of an Event, and
7) Final Destination: “Nota Bene!”

I will present a couple of thoughts about two of these. First, on Buddhism: Zizek is famous for his debunking of Buddhism. In general he follows Nietzsche’s well-worn path in this. He combines the profane with the sacred: he hurtles along from the “Stamina Training Unit” (You will have to read it for yourself. I was howling . . .) to finally arrive at his Buddhism critique; or what he thinks is his Buddhism critique, for in “Buddhism” he initially lumps all sorts of New Age philosophies that have nothing to do with Reverend Gotama’s stories from the Pali Canon.

He shows some familiarity with the First Discourse, which contains the core of Gotama’s ethical theory, but starts his critique with the Second Discourse, on the anatta doctrine. He quite rightly, to my mind, defends free will against deterministic fantasies from both Buddhism and philosophers allied with the “cognitive science” strain of contemporary philosophy. The Churchlands are specifically named, who he says “claim that we are not biologically wired to our everyday self-understanding as free autonomous Selves.” Zizek, of course, is a “self” guy, as a follower of Freud and Lacan. He accuses the no-self crowd, including both the naturalized science philosophers and the Buddhists, of “implicit naivety.”

Zizek addresses the First Discourse when he says that Buddhism is concerned with solving the problem of suffering, “ . . . so its first axiom is: we don’t want to suffer. (For a Freudian, this already is problematic and far from self-evident (sic) – not only on account of some obscure masochism, but on account of the deep satisfaction brought about by passionate attachment.” He accuses Buddhism of inconsistency: “But a problem arises here: if moderate good acts (the elementary morality with which Buddhist practice begins) help us to get rid of our excessive attachments, is it not the case that, when we reach Nirvana, we should be able to perform even brutal evil acts in such a way that leave no traces, because we perform them at a distance?” Well, no, actually this seems to be a non-sequitur, at least to this reader. There is no reason to think that an arhat who had achieved Nirvana would forget the First Discourse once he got there.

But it also seems to me that Zizek has come closer to a puzzling truth of Reverend Gotama’s doctrine than he realizes. For isn’t the Event, as he defines it as the gap between cause and effect, the exact spot of Gotama’s Nirvana? If not Gotama’s Nirvana, then surely Dogen’s Nirvana! For isn’t this the place of being “un-conditioned?” Zizek’s Event is intended, it seems, in a Hegelian sense: it is a moment in time which changes the course of future events. Dogen’s Event is a stop in time, an eternal moment, but an Event all the same, by Zizek’s original definition.

Another stop in Zizek’s commute throws off a hint into his answer to a question around which he often hovers, but doesn’t always state clearly: Why did the Communist project of the Twentieth Century fail? He says, “The Chinese Cultural Revolution serves as a lesson here: destroying old monuments proved not to be a true negation of the past. Rather it was an impotent passage a l’acte, an ‘acting out’ which bore witness to the failure to get rid of the past.” The reason the Communist regimes of the Twentieth Century failed to achieve communism is because they recapitulated structures of dominance from the previous bourgeois and even feudal periods of history. Not a bad explanation.

Or was it because they never had a good idea of the goal to begin with? Zizek actually states pretty well what that goal should have been: “Imagine a society which fully integrated into its ethical substance the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, the duty of society to provide for education and basic healthcare of all it’s members, and which rendered racism or sexism simply unacceptable and ridiculous – there is no need even to argue against, say racism, since anyone who openly advocates racism is immediately perceived as a weird eccentric who cannot be taken seriously.” This flushes out Marx’s “from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs” with some basic safeguards to human dignity. This seems like a pretty good place to end up.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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