abstract art, a systems view

Zizek’s “Living in the End Times”, recent violence and art

with 5 comments

In the final section of Zizek’s book “Living in the End Times”, (see previous blog post), having surveyed the responses to the anticipated end of global capitalism, under the headings: 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining and 4) Depression he comes to the fifth: Acceptance.

Acceptance:part of mind map on Slavoj Zizek's book "Living in the End Times"

He cites Badiou’s argument that we live in a social space which is progressively experienced as “worldless”, and suggests that ‘within such a space “meaningless” violence is the only form protest can take’. He is referring to the burning of cars in Paris in 2005, and it seems to me that he could equally be referring now to what has been taking place on UK city streets in the last few days. He goes on to argue that

This is why the famous Porto Alegre motto “Another world is possible!” is too simplistic; it fails to register that right now we already live less and less within what can be called a world, so that the task is no longer just to replace the old one with a new one, but …what? The first indications are given in art.

He seems to update the notion that art (may) help us to envision possible new worlds, to one where art (potentially) indicates the task at hand. From my reading of the chapter (a brilliant discussion of Kafka, Platonov, Sturgeon, Vertov and Satie), this indicating is itself extremely indirect, along the lines I mentioned in my previous blog where in film sometimes the plot is prefigured metaphorically during the opening titles.

(Since writing this post I noticed that someone else also quoted Zizek in relation to the recent riots  at this excellent blog:


Written by Andy Parkinson

August 13, 2011 at 7:53 am

5 Responses

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  1. Taking a broader view of the question, one of my personal gods, Vladimir Paperny — the expatriate Soviet (yes, Soviet) author of the criminally overlooked structuralist masterpiece Culture 2: Architecture in the Age of Stalin — has recently (2006) asked: “To what extent is modernism responsible for all the violence and destruction of the last two centuries?”

    In his brilliant article for Art Margins on “Modernism and Destruction,” Paperny quotes Žižek favorably in making some daunting claims of his own:

    There are many interpretations of the 9/11 events currently in circulation. Slavoj Žižek compares the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers to Stalin’s show trials. If Stalin turns out to be a greater modernist than Le Corbusier, than the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers might have been greater modernists that Minoru Yamasaki. They basically redirected two forces of modernity aiming them against one another: the most powerful airplane in the world (the result of the modernist fascination with flying) against the tallest buildings in the world (the result of the modernist fascination with verticality and height). If this was a show trial then the defendant was modernism. The show “unmasked” (to use Stalinist terminology), perhaps without the claimants’ intentions, some built-in contradictions of modernism: just as violence leads to more violence, destruction leads to more (and possibly self-) destruction.

    As he refers to above, Paperny had just finished making the scandalously heretical claim that Stalin, who he contends personally authored the design for the Palace of the Soviets, was a greater modernist than Le Corbusier, widely regarded as the archmodernist.

    Le Corbusier and other members of the CIAM wrote a letter to Stalin lobbying him to intervene in order to “stop this sensational challenge to the public from being executed.” Stalin, as it turned out, was the last person they should have asked. As architectural historian Dmitrii Khmel’nitskii recently discovered, the whole design belonged to Stalin himself. None of the official authors, says Khmel’nitskii, — Iofan, Shchuko or Gel’freikh — was capable of such “clear spatial idea, vigor, strength, dynamism, and at the same time such powerful barbarism, such neophyte courage in dealing with form, function and surface.”

    If we are to believe Khmel’nitskii, then Stalin appears to have been a greater modernist than Le Corbusier, Wright, Ginzburg or Vesnin. His barbarian creation did not imitate any known style of the past, his Palace was to surpass the Empire State Building by a few feet, he did not collaborate, he worked incognito (just like Roark on the housing project), he disregarded community life and was not interested in people. Moreover, his structure was supposed to be age-resistant: “Centuries will not leave their mark on it,” wrote the official historian of the Palace Nikolai Atarov. “We will build it so that it will stand without aging, forever.”

    Of course I cannot help but love the sheer audacity of Paperny’s claims. The man is simply a genius.

    Ross Wolfe

    August 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

  2. In contemporary psychoanalysis, and particularly ‘field theory’ there is an idea that for some folks (and I would argue that this is applies to our ‘un-world’) you can’t simply expose the unconscious and rely on awareness to reconfigure the psyche – you can’t just imagine a new world (self). There are some psyches that have either been so damaged or are so undeveloped that they must be created, collaboratively in the process of relating in an intensely creative and fertile exchange. A capacity for thinking itself must be sown and nurtured before true thinking (alpha function in Bion’s terms) is possible and something new is created, not an idea though, not a thing, but a capacity to transform experience without which one is left completely overwhelmed with each new or challenging experience, like a child, unable to cope, all past learning obliterated, resorting to senseless violence/tantrum. I think it is this capacity for a creative, intense and fertile exchange that art at its best offers, an alternative. “Be careful, they have arms and no alternatives.” – Ryszard Kapuscinski


    August 13, 2011 at 5:39 pm

  3. Great Post, interesting comments so far!

    Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot were all “great” modernists. They just took it all too literally for the rest of the world to take on. The current crop has been more subtle, used coercion and the destruction of alternative perspectives to co-opt great masses to their side.

    Mind, creativity has to be fostered, especially in a time of crippled capacities.

    I would like to add that art instead of imagining another “another world” is the way to imagine ourselves back into the world we live in, the world we’ve done so much to deny/destroy.

    Antonio Dias

    August 15, 2011 at 11:55 am

    • I would generally agree that totalitarians like Stalin and Hitler did absorb elements of modernism, in terms of both their administration of their regimes as well as the aesthetics of their politics. Great modernist angles abound in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, despite the overtly volkisch scenes alongside them. The perfectly-choreographed mechanical marching of the huge SA divisions is likewise quite modernist. In the same way, many of the techniques Eisenstein employed in his blatantly propagandistic Ivan the Terrible, Part I glorified Stalinism (the anti-Stalinist Part II never saw the light of day, of course). Boris Groys and Vladimir Paperny are thus correct to argue that totalitarian governments adopted qualities belonging to modernism, as much as they did to repress modernist art as “bourgeois” or “degenerate” (Jewish).

      This makes even greater sense when one considers how totalitarian regimes were very much the outcome of modernity. Modern liberal bourgeois society under capitalism constitutes an objective totality in its structures of universal exchange (Lukacs). Authoritarian parties assumed the political form of this objective totality by making it their primary organizational principle (Adorno), even though they were nominally opposed to capitalism. Zizek sometimes misinterprets Adorno and Horkheimer as arguing that theorizing the totality leads ineluctably to political totalitarianism, when they actually believe that this political development is just a reflection of the structure of bourgeois society. Zizek’s criticism of Levinas along those same lines, however, regarding the latter’s Totality and Infinity, is totally valid, however.

      I would challenge your claim, Antonio Dias, that art is simply an imaginative means by which we make peace with the existing order of the world. Such an art would be complicit with the oppressive realities it paints over by merely beautifying the world we live in. Art of course can perform this function, and has many times throughout history, but in these cases art has been reactionary.

      Ross Wolfe

      August 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      • Ross,

        Well, we’re in closer agreement than you might think! I’m not advocating art as a way to make peace with an existing order, but as a way to engage in “our world” as opposed to the mental constructs we tend to “inhabit” instead. I’m talking about a phenomenological exploration of what it means to be and perceive, and how that can lead us to what I’ve been calling a Joyful Disillusionment and the realm of a radical acceptance as noted in the heart of this post.

        This is a big topic, and it’s not surprising that my off-hand quip was misleading.


        Antonio Dias

        August 15, 2011 at 5:37 pm

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