Intro: Slavoj Zizek seems to be everywhere, all over YouTube, presenting papers, and teaching at three different schools at least, while at the same time still managing to publish 2-3 new books per year. Granted, much of what Zizek puts out is rehashed or recycled ideas and anecdotes from previous books and essays, it is nonetheless mystifying how much this guy’s engaged. To say that he’s prolific is an understatement. I’ve already read a lot of Zizek, but I doubt that I’ve read even half of what he’s written so far, and the dude keeps on writing. So it’s a bit of a catch up game for me.
Now, I understand there’s a lot of criticism out there of Zizek already and there is a question whether my voice will add anything at all to the conversation, already in progress. If anything, my voice will most likely get drowned out in the sea of critique of Zizek’s ideas, this I understand. The reason I’m doing this is personal. There are lots of other writers I’d like to take a stab at in the near future, Angela Nagle comes to mind, or Mark Fisher, but Zizek is something different.
First, he’s Slavic, born in Slovenia, I’m Slavic, born in Czech Republic. This may seem at first like nothing important, but to me it’s absolutely essential. It means that his world-view and mine are in some sense conditioned by similar forces. Continental philosophy is dominated by western thought, mostly coming from France and Germany, with a smattering from the British Isles and the US, but Chomsky, Foucault, or Heidegger share an entirely different world-view, one that is based on expansive thought and ideas, progress and even optimism. Zizek, it seems, deals more with pessimism and the burden of a small nation. It’s not always there in his writing, but if you’re not from that world, it’s easy to miss. For someone from that world to be this big is doubly an achievement.
Second, he fights his own demons. This I appreciate very much in Zizek’s writings on psychoanalysis and film. It is as if this particular mode of writing is a way for Zizek to self-diagnose. It is this that attracted me to psychoanalysis first and philosophy later. Zizek combines both to a great effect, which is largely absent from a lot of other writing on similar subjects, peppering his word smithing with a particular Eastern European flavor. Zizek wrestles with, as do other writers from Eastern Europe, his own shadow.
This is the motivation for me to write these posts and the blog in general. It is a way for me to investigate a bit of my own shadow side, via the thought of Zizek.
Part 1: Uncanny Happiness
In the most famous American dictum ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ which attempts to describe the unalienable rights of, well, everyone, it is the last third that is possibly the most ambiguous and for a good reason. There is a different version of the above phrase that serves as the header to the 5th Amendment and it reads ‘Protection of rights to Life, Liberty and Property.’ It is obvious that the authors of the Amendment were trying to insert objectivity into the phrase and simply substituted ‘pursuit of happiness’ with ‘property’ which could have easily also read ‘pursuit of property.’ Property is tangible, it can be measured and has a certain value, whereas happiness does not. But this is why the first phrase is so much more interesting. In some way it gives us a glimpse into the uncertain future of those that wrote it, namely Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. But it also sheds light on the present situation in the United States, which doubled down on its ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a vehicle for the ‘pursuit of prosperity, pleasure and wealth,’ a perversion of the original meaning behind the phrase.
Happiness is in itself a simple thing, but to achieve it one has to learn it. At least this seems to be the case in much of western culture that practices postmodern neo-liberal capitalism. In South Korea suicide rates are at an all-time high, despite the country’s economic prosperity and the use of anti-depressants in the US is so prevalent nobody seems to question them. The happiness presented to us, through ‘happiness quotients’ and ‘happiness studies’ of cities masks a harder truth, that happiness isn’t solely dependent on wealth, prosperity or relative comfort of living. It would appear that life and liberty have and their pursuit, have a negative effect on the achievement of happiness, and the ownership of property isn’t and end in itself that can arrest the individual in a state of happiness.
In some way we may continue discussing happiness apropos of Zizek who writes
‘Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.’
It is interesting to note that the qualifier ‘pursuit of’ is found in front of the word happiness in the Declaration of Independence, as if the authors realized that happiness is not a category in itself. According to this wording, pursuing happiness is elevated above happiness on the grounds that, as Zizek mentions, eternal struggle or pursuit is the only thing worth doing. This wording is grounded in the Enlightenment’s emphasis on knowledge and the intellect, both directly opposed to the sterile and hypocritical happiness through redemption promised by Christianity.
But apart from happiness being a category of human emotion, it is also a commodity. In the study of the evolution of faces in photos over 110 years done at UC Berkeley smiles predominate in photos since the 1950s with the grinning smile taking hold in the 1980s, while in the years pre-1950 faces appear more stoic. On Instagram pictures of users with big smiles or laughing typically get more likes per image than sober, stoic ones. The injunction seems to be ‘enjoy’ because this way one fulfills their duty in producing the commodity of happiness. The endless reproduction of happiness and smiles is predicated on a type of late capitalist anti-intellectualism. The stern faces of academics and the sober manners of the old guard literary figures are a sure-fire way to alienate a majority of those under 30 and those who click. Even the worst of news, is today carried with a kind of detached whimsy, because news after all still has to appeal to the masses and sell air time. From ads and magazines, to TV presenters, celebrities and athletes, the injunction to enjoy and appear happy is tactically opposed to the burden of appearing ‘intelligent’ and therefore smarter than their audience, a toxic condition to the corporations whose profits rest on appearances that everything is in its proper place. This was the driving force behind Google in its early days, making the work place into a quasi-playground for the young adults employed in their offices and a standard tactic behind much of contemporary intra-office public relations between the bosses and the workers. By making the workplace ‘fun’ there is a greater pressure exerted on the employees in the form of guilt but also in deferred rise in compensation, something that trickles down to the economy at large. Today if one truly enjoys their work there appears the idea that this same person may not need to be compensated for their work, given that they would probably be ok doing the work for less or for free. Working for less that one’s labor is worth is so commonplace in the 21st century workplace that it’s been given a name, self-exploitation, and it, among the other evils of modern labor, is discussed in detail in Peter Fleming’s Resisting Work. The ‘you’re having a good time, so why should I pay you’ is a duplicitous tactic, deployed by corporations and institutions, small and large, and it bleeds into the lives of individuals in such a way that working for less or for free with the vision of higher future income or profits becomes a natural state of things.
It would be easy to blame corporations for their influence over the masses. In a way the masses have to be willing to be controlled. In the 21st century we have arrived at a juncture in which state, institutional and corporate control becomes omnipresent through their infiltration into the public sphere via mass communications and social media. The corporate logic of enjoyment in the workplace led directly into the corporatization of personal lives in the form of the ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self,’ the indefatigable self-promoter and self-commodifier. In order to be viable in the 21st century marketplace one has to be continually marketing and branding oneself. Happiness, enjoyment and staying positive are crucial qualities for potential ‘consumers’ of ‘products’ and ‘content.’ The logic of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ applies to happiness more than ever, when even within internet social relations, one’s ‘market value’ rises and falls based on the perceptions of a potential audience. Put on a fake smile and get 100 more likes per image is the credo of the new ‘entrepreneur-of-the-self.’