Slavoj Zizek’s article Joe Public v the volcano that appeared in the April 29 2010 New Statesman illustrates once again the perils of being the shock jock of academic Marxism. One can imagine him stroking his beard and saying to himself after writing such an article: “Hah, that will get ’em talking”. Yes, it might get people talking but the goal is to raise their awareness, not just get them talking.
I am afraid that Zizek gets sidetracked in these sorts of intellectual dead ends because he, like many big-time “theorists”, operates pretty much as a lone wolf. In the rarefied world of plenary sessions and featured articles in the New Left Review, the professional intellectual operates like a novelist or a composer. They have to make a big impression and that means carving out some turf that cannot be confused with some other second-rate talent. Unfortunately, when it comes to Marxism, you really need to be part of some kind of collective discussion or else you end up veering off in odd directions. Of course, within that framework you have to have the ability to think for yourself. Ironically, the crisis of Marxism today is largely a function of people like Zizek operating in their own hermetically sealed intellectual space on one hand, and on the other hand “Marxist-Leninists” functioning like the Borg in Star Trek. You need both the collective framework and the freedom to speak your mind.
Zizek’s article was inspired by the volcanic eruption in Iceland:
We are living in an age when we are both able to change nature and more at its mercy than ever –– as the Icelandic volcano has proved.
Many of those who have a fear of flying are haunted by a particular thought: that is, how many parts of such a complicated machine as a modern plane have to function smoothly in order for it to stay in the air? One small lever breaks somewhere, and the plane may spiral downwards . . . When you start to think how many things could go wrong, you cannot help but panic.
The people of Europe have experienced something similar in the past few weeks. That a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland – a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on earth – can bring to a standstill the air traffic over almost an entire continent is a reminder of how humankind, for all its power to transform nature, remains just another living species on the planet.
Starting from a major event taking place in nature outside of society, Zizek spins off into some questionable musings on ecology that by its very definition involves human agency. His main problem is that he lacks a class analysis. Note carefully in the following excerpt how freely he uses the words “we” and “our” as in the following: “our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them”. Between someone like myself and a shrimp swimming around in the Gulf of Mexico on one hand and BP and the Obama administration on the other, there’s not much “we” going on.
Most of the threats we face today are not external (or “natural”), but generated by human activity shaped by science (the ecological consequences of our industry, say, or the psychic consequences of uncontrolled genetic engineering), so that the sciences are simultaneously the source of such threats, our best hope of understanding those threats, and the means through which we may find a way of coping with them.
Even if we blame scientific-technological civilisation for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but also, often, to perceive it in the first place. The “ozone hole”, for example, can be “seen” in the sky only by scientists. That line from Wagner’s Parsifal – “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) – acquires a new relevance here.
How much can we “safely” pollute our environment? How many fossil fuels can we burn? How much of a poisonous substance does not threaten our health? That our knowledge has limitations does not mean we shouldn’t exaggerate the ecological threat. On the contrary, we should be even more careful about it, given that the situation is extremely unpredictable. The recent uncertainties about global warming signal not that things are not too serious, but that they are even more chaotic than we thought, and that natural and social factors are inextricably linked.
Things go from bad to worse when Zizek invokes Donald Rumsfeld as a kind of epistemological authority in a clear bid to be outrageous—expecting his readers to email their friends: “Did you read Zizek’s piece in the New Statesman where he cites Rumsfeld? Wow!”
When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.
So, dear reader, you might find yourself asking what the fuck does this have to do with the environment. Well, at least, that’s what I would ask. Here’s how Zizek answers that question:
Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.
Well, Slavoj, there is a precedent for moving people around but not in the way that you envision. One of the most significant achievements of the Cuban revolution has been its ability to evacuate its citizens from the path of an oncoming hurricane, as seen in this AP dispatch:
HAVANA, Cuba – When Hurricane Ike struck Cuba, Ronald Matos didn’t think twice about fleeing his one-room wooden house for a government shelter.
The 34-year-old construction worker and his wife, Emma Jean, got soft beds, free meals, the attention of a doctor and solicitous social workers — and the companionship of other friendly Cubans.
“We passed the night talking and telling stories, because Cubans never lose their smiles or their sense of humor,” he said. “There is no electricity, but we are better protected than in our homes.”
With an inefficient centralized economy and a U.S. embargo that has stifled trade, Cuba doesn’t have resources to build new, hurricane-proof buildings. It doesn’t have fleets of Humvees to charge through the floodwaters. Few of its people have cars to flee in, and fewer still can check on loved ones by cellphone.
But if there’s one thing the communist island does right, it’s evacuations. And in the end, that saves more lives than anything else.
One imagines that despite being a “Leninist”, Zizek would be not that impressed with such measures in light of his general displeasure with the island’s “stagnation”, something I commented on in a prior post:
It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”.
Well, I don’t know. Those evacuations sound pretty efficient to me.
Then, of course, there’s the question of what this has to do with “great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa” becoming “too dry for a large population to live there”. I would say there are two problems with this. First of all, it puts climate change on the same plane as volcanoes. To my knowledge, the first is a problem associated with untrammeled capitalist production while the second is a product of nature. To confuse the two is mischievous, to say the least. The other problem is that it assumes that the population of sub-Saharan Africa can be picked up and moved somewhere else. This would be a daunting task even under socialism. It is much better in fact to draw a line in the sand and say that the great majority of humanity (i.e., the workers and the peasants) will not stand for such a catastrophe brought on by the ruling class’s disregard for elementary ecological principles. What would strike any normal, class-conscious person is that Zizek’s recommendations are utterly fatalistic and defeatist at the core, so at odds with his “Leninist” pretensions.