Est. January 2010 (v1.0)


The Developing City: a Tweet Review

On Wednesday 5th I visited The Developing City, an exhibition documenting the changing configuration and architecture of the City of London, from its Roman origins through present day construction, before speculating on its future development up to 2050.

Looking east along the Thames toward the City circa 2050?

Looking east along the Thames toward the City circa 2050?

Yesterday I recorded a number of my scathing thoughts about their 2050 vision in a series of tweets. Today it occurred to me that this ‘mini-review’ could be recorded on this blog using WordPress’ recently added ‘Twitter Embeds’ function (update 8th Sept: this function is erratic, so I eventually gave up and decided to use the html embed codes generated by Twitter itself—see comments below). So, here we go:

So, that's my little experiment with Twitter Embeds. They could be put to more interesting use recording discussions, such as this Twitter conversation I documented manually a few years ago. However the authenticity of using the ‘actual tweets’ would need to be balanced against the possibility that the tweets, or the tweeting account, might be deleted at some point in the future.

A new financial centre at Aldgate…

A new financial centre at Aldgate, set within a landscaped ‘high park’…


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.

  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.

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