jonathanwaring.net Est. January 2010 (v1.0)

3Oct/100

Summing Up: Žižek and Environmentalism (Part 1)

Before moving on to other topics, I am returning here once more to Žižek. Following my previous posts addressing his stance toward recycling, it seems appropriate to also consider his wider position with regards to something that I would term ‘environmentalism’, but which—in the following video clip—Žižek (incorrectly) refers to as ‘ecology’. Perhaps, by ecology he rather intends to mean ‘ecological movement’ (see: Wikipedia: Ecology Disambiguation), ecology itself being something quite distinct in meaning from environmentalism—see: Wikipedia: Ecology:

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, "house" or "living relations"; -λογία, "study of") is the scientific study of the distributions, abundance and relations of organisms and their interactions with the environment. Ecology includes the study of plant and animal populations, plant and animal communities and ecosystems. Ecosystems describe the web or network of relations among organisms at different scales of organization. ... Ecology is not synonymous with environment, environmentalism, or environmental science. Ecology is closely related to the disciplines of physiology, evolution, genetics and behavior.

In this video clip (from the 2008 film ‘Examined Life’ by Astra Taylor) Žižek’s basic position with respect to ‘environmentalism’—if not his actual opinions about specific environmental issues—become clear:

Žižek’s 10 minute section from ‘Examined Life’

Žižek stance is explicitly against the romantic conception of nature, and the related myth of the ‘natural’ as a ‘balanced harmony’. In fact, in his refusal of the term itself—‘there is no nature’—it seems that, for Žižek, nature is inescapably tainted with romanticism—with romantic ideology. ‘Nature’ is ideological in the sense that its very idea appears inescapably bundled together with a particular ‘attitude’ toward itself: this attitude is that it (nature) should be considered as an separate entity (separate from something which we must then presume to be ‘non-nature’); that it should be considered something ‘over there’, apart from us; and as something distinct in itself, static in its identity and therefore requiring ‘preservation’ from the encroachment of said non-nature. For an excellent explanation and expansion of this idea and its Hegelian roots, see Timothy Morton’s video ‘Beautiful Soul Syndrome’ (at 7:44)—I’d also highly recommend the other two parts in this series.

A common Žižekian theme is the identification of the political right with the notion that society was once a balanced harmonious system, with everything and everybody in its ‘proper place’ and—by extension—the idea that this perfection could once again be regained, were not for the external (‘virus’, ‘parasite’) or internal (‘cancer’) disruptive elements at odds with natural order of the social body. Be these disruptive threats identified in ideas (social, intellectual or political positions; artistic movements; or a more general notion of corruption of traditional values; etc.) or embodied in the idealisation of a specific group as disruptive in itself (Jew, other specific ethnic or religious group, immigrant, internal political subversive, ‘deviant’ etc.), in the imagination of the right they represent not only an obstacle to a return to Edenic harmony, but also further threaten what ‘still remains’ of it.

Žižek contrasts this with what he considers to be the position of a genuine left, which is constituted in an acknowledgement that class struggle exists as the inescapable base of all social orders.1 (See: For They Know Not What They Do, Preface to the Second Edition, note 16, p.xcv) Class struggle, in this sense, should not be thought of purely—as it popularly and simplistically is—as antagonisms of interest between crude monolithic-homogenous blocks (proletariat vs. bourgeoisie etc.), but rather—I would contend—between a profusion of both ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ classes, shifting and overlapping in their interests and therefore their various degrees of conscious and unconscious antagonism. Within this schema, individuals may exist in many classes simultaneously, and are not permanently fixed in their membership (it is crucial here not to make the error in thinking that this implies individuals are somehow in a position to ‘choose’ which classes they belong to—when this is properly understood the ideology at work in the idea ‘lifestyle’ becomes apparent). In this way a geniuine left recognises that, not only are our contemporary societies neither balanced nor harmonious, but that they never were, and never truly can be.

Following on from this acceptance, there comes an additional role for the left: the role of the social mediation of class antagonisms according to an egalitarian principle. It seems clear, from the acceptance of fundamental division, that such a mediating principle would be dialectical in character; for, despite any and every successful egalitarian mediation (though worthwhile in its own right) the process would never be able to fully ‘catch up’ with the fundamental and inescapable split which constitutes society itself.2

It is against the background of these ideas that Žižek’s opposition to the ideological mystification of ‘nature’ (or more precisely, the ideological mystification inherent in the idea of nature itself) should be read. Instead of the more commonplace line of one arguing for the removal of an unhelpful division between humankind and nature—that humans are ‘a part of nature’ and so should therefore seek to replicate or ‘live within’ nature's own ‘natural balance’—he instead maintains that ‘there is no nature’. By this he intends that, as with the myth of a balanced society, the myth of balance or harmony in nature is exactly that—a myth.

To what extent can his analysis be considered justified, and is there really a danger—as Žižek claims in the video—of environmentalism becoming ‘a new opium of the masses’?

In the second part of this post I will explore Žižek’s conceptions of ‘balance’ and ‘nature’ further—in the context of extinction events in Earth’s prehistory—and challenge this provocative claim.

Footnotes:
  1. Given these definitions of left and right, it is worth noting the tendency for revolutionary movements of the left to shift almost immediately to an effective position of the right (albeit with a different foundational myth and symbolisation) upon taking power.
  2. It is worth thinking about this in relation to the debate between reform versus revolution. If no amount of mediation can equal an infinite mediation that would be required to heal that which cannot be healed (as it was never wounded in the first place), then why might a bigger step (revolution) any more appropriate than a series of smaller steps? (ongoing iterative reform). It is also worth considering how a society might correctly apprehend and assemble such an egalitarian principle in the first place.
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