Est. January 2010 (v1.0)


Response to ‘Slavoj Žižek and the Recycling Superstition’

The response to my last post, ‘Slavoj Žižek and the Recycling Superstition’, has been gratifying. Following an @LSEpublicevents retweet, the post was picked up at Reddit by user Benkanoun, leading to a discussion of both of the issues raised in Žižek’s original lecture and—to a lesser extent—in my writing. Having developed into something much longer than I had originally intended, I am pleased that the post was of enough interest for so many to take the time to read it.

Having read the discussions, and also in light of my own thoughts on reading the post again, I have amended it slightly. These amendments address two key sections where I believe my meaning was not as clear as it could have been. Details of the changes and the original paragraphs can be found in the comments which follow the post.

In my second edit, I have also added a mention that—even sticking to my focus on the actions of the individual—recycling is in fact significantly less preferable than either reduction or reuse (the accepted ‘three Rs’ of sustainability—see Waste Hierarchy for an expansion and development of these). In order of minimising environmental impact, the hierarchy of preference is:

1. Reduce > 2. Reuse > 3. Recyle

It is interesting to note that while recycling generally gets a lot of attention (even if it is not practiced at anywhere near the level it could be), a lot less is said about the more preferable options of reduction and reuse. The key difference—and likely explanation—is that recycling is absolutely compatible with an ideology of perpetual economic growth based on ever increasing material consumption. You consume more; you recycle more. And—following Žižek’s reasoning—you can feel good about doing more of the former, just as long as you also do more of the latter. If recycling can be made profitable, then growth in the consumption of goods also creates a potential for growth in a market for recycling.

Whilst recycling can be made to turn a profit, reduction and reuse are at a basic level incompatible with this aim. Had Žižek pointed this out, then it seems likely he would have drawn less of the immediate negative reactions and confusion generated by his statements (mentioned at the beginning of my previous post). However this, I believe, would be to confuse his real point. His claim is more fundamental than simply saying that recycling is a diversion from other more worthwhile individual practices. Even if the elderly neighbour (referred to in the LSE lecture) honestly and diligently practiced reduction and reuse in the same way Žižek mentions her doing with recycling, this practice would still draw Žižek’s claim of superstition.

Žižek more profound point is to identify an operation of basic superstition involved in the very concept of personal action itself. Even individual action consciously directed at fundamental socio-political change is superstitious in these terms. This is why Žižek’s own invocation of the ‘paradox of the performative’ is in itself his superstition. As it is impossible for any individual to bring about systemic change by themselves, it follows that any doctrine of individual action that aims at systemic change necessarily invokes superstition. In simplistic terms—and to loose the subtlety of the concept—superstition here has a crude analogue in ‘leap of faith’.

It strikes me that Žižek’s is keenly aware of this limit point; the point beyond which our actions cannot be other than superstitious.

In this video from the beginning of this year, Žižek is interrogated about his position on a range of current topics by a disembodied voice and video images on the giant screens which surround him. Here he repeatedly approaches this limit. What is interesting, in this encounter with the superstitious limit point of his own action—in this case, his ‘action’ in prescribing any specific course of radical action <in response to global crisis>—is his honesty in effectively admitting: I don’t know what, but here something has to happen.

Slavoj Žižek, VPRO Backlight, 11th January 2010