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.
3 responses to “Response to ‘Slavoj Žižek and the Recycling Superstition’”
I can see that you are attempting to engage seriously with Zizek’s ideas, but nonetheless I think you are making a number of errors in characterizing his thinking. Although this is perhaps understandable given the limited nature of the material you are addressing.
Zizek sees individual responses to ecological crisis in the terms of the Lacanian psychoanalytic concept of the obsessional neurotic, who out of guilt engages in frantic activity effectively to ensure that nothing changes. The point is not really that recycling doesn’t really do anything and that it’s just a superstition that displaces effective action. It’s more that even if it does help the environment in some minimal way, its main function is an obsessional ritual to keep up the appearance that nothing really needs to change, we’ve arrived at the end of history, capitalism is the final form of human economic organization, etc. This is why the most common response to this observation is to assert that the ritual really does work. He’s definitely not saying what you’ve attributed to him in this post, a kind of rationalist analytical idea that the problem is belief in superstition in itself. It’s equally mistaken to ask him to provide us with a ritual that does work, since it’s the excessive, desperate need to Do Something about the situation that is in itself a way to avoid the truth of the situation. The key point here is that just because the obsessional neurotic can find rational reasons for his rituals if he looks hard enough doesn’t mean they don’t function for him in this way.
A comment on your previous post:
You say “the locus of moral choice cannot exist at any level other than that of the individual consciousness” – As a Lacanian, Zizek would certainly disagree here – it implies that we are radically self-transparent to ourselves and our actions are determined by rational, conscious decision-making, rather than out of the unconscious, which is outside of ourselves, in the discourse of the Other as Lacan would say.
On recycling as an act of identification with an expansive future community: yes, but this identification assumes that capitalism will still exist in that future. These symbolic gestures betray a belief that ecological problems can be solved within the parameters of the current system, so that even if we consciously identify as anti-capitalist radicals seeking to overthrow the system, our actions betray our unconscious Fukuyama-ism.
Thank you for your comments. Having read more of Žižek’s writing since my original post, I would say your primary point succinctly sums up the challenge Žižek is laying down to us in framing recycling within the paradigm of the ‘obsessional neurotic’. However, as with Žižek’s many other challenges—which I consider to be central to his work and practice—I think there is more happening here than that we are simply being delivered an end point; Žižek invites (or perhaps incites) us to go further.
But first, let me clear up what appears to be a misunderstanding concerning what I was saying—you wrote:
I do not attribute anything like this to Žižek in my post, nor do even make a similar claim myself. If anything, I really intend to praise Žižek for his personal willingness to engage with, and at times step beyond, what I term the ‘superstitious limit point of his own action’. By ‘step beyond’, I mean to move into an area marked out by this limit as being unavoidably superstitious. I would go further and suggest that, it is entirely necessary for any individual prescribing action directed at fundamental change, to occupy a position beyond this limit.
I agree that what you describe is Žižek initial diagnosis when confronted with the phenomena of recycling—although it is unclear whether his diagnosis is principally a psychoanalytic one pertaining to the individual, or can more correctly be seen as a diagnosis of (concealed) ideology as a collective social phenomena. I would suggest that, as well as defending an ideology masquerading as a natural state of affairs, ‘asserting that the ritual really does work’ additionally serves also to defend against a more general individual impotence, both specifically in the face of the systemic conditions of capitalism, but also against the—quite proper—impotence of the individual when measured against the scale of any social order.
However, going beyond the diagnosis, Žižek is—quite rightly—unable to refrain at times from proposing action (what to do / what not to do) himself—for example: in his ribald reference to ‘the only kind of drilling’ that should be taking place in the Gulf of Mexico (during the LSE lecture). It is at these moments that he approaches/passes the ‘limit point’ I refer to. When invoking the ‘paradox of the performative’ and prescribing action himself, he clearly enacts the same superstitious activity he diagnoses.
Moving on to your comments regarding my previous post:
Yes, I expect Žižek would disagree with me on this, but what you miss from your quote is my qualifying statement: ‘to the extent that such choice exists as a phenomena of consciousness—i.e. presupposing free will’. It doesn’t matter how opaque we are to ourselves, as that which is then ‘outside of ourselves’ simply becomes part of the landscape within which we make our choices. As long as, ‘choice exists as a phenomena of consciousness’ (which is surely a definition of ‘free will’), then such choices must take place at the level of the individual. Unconscious factors, along with social and material conditions, may determine and constrain our moral choices (and awareness of theoretically possible choices—those precluded from the outset), but they do not relocate choice itself to a level outside of the individual consciousness. Note: I am not saying that this in any way proves the existence of free will in moral choices (or in any kind of ‘choice’)—I am, in fact, technically ‘begging the question’—but simply stating that if we take it as axiomatic that if moral choices exist, then they must surely be conscious by definition.
I am not sure that you can justify your assertion that ‘this identification assumes that capitalism will still exist in that future’, unless by this you mean that: none of us can be anything other than Fukuyama-ist in our unconscious thought, because our age is ‘Fukuyama-ian’—i.e. because capitalism lacks a credible competing symbolic order / ideology / materiality, the ‘unconscious landscape’ of our times (the ground against which our thoughts occur) is inescapably capitalist?
If this is what you mean, then you are right that this certainly poses a problem; however, wouldn’t Žižek see an answer in the Hegelian dialectic? Set against Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’, wouldn’t it be that, even if we are not yet consciously aware of the form it will come to take, the dialectical process is already setting in motion something that will eventually come to replace capitalism? I have limited direct knowledge of Hegel, but, by way of Žižek’s discussion of the three movements of the dialectical process in ‘For They Know Not What They Do’, it appears that it is not possible to know fully what has actually transpired until its third and ‘final’ motion (the ‘negation of the negation’—which is ‘final’ in the sense of being the last of the three movements, not as in being the impossible end of the process itself).
Slavoj Žižek, “For The Know Not What They Do”, p.63
It appears plausible that practices such as recycling, might equally be either: neurotic symptoms, signifying attempts to keep the system in place; or otherwise, come to be recognised as aspects of an—as yet unknown—phenomena, eventually to be revealed as a key shift in the movement of history.
When framed in these terms, it is difficult to see how it is possible to make a determination of either possibility in advance of the ‘completion’ of the process. Once again, I see attempting to address this situation as both the condition and the task of a ‘positive’ superstition.
So are we screwed as a species, then? Let thermodynamics take us down, in its indifference. I confuse myself with human biases, and thus can’t see a way out. An individual exists in relation to the community, and individuality is but a convenient fiction to serve the most powerful.
Frankly, I have no idea, except to say that people run away from the fact of mortality and the materiality of existence, by indulging ourselves in material goods. We psychologically project our insecurities onto objects that don’t last as long as we do.
Funny, isn’t it? The flight from materiality, by indulging in the very thing we detest to be the case. No wonder chemistry is such a taboo topic!