The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

By Slavoj Žižek

Verso Books & Google Books

Call it the year of dreaming dangerously: 2011 caught the world off guard with a series of shattering events. While protesters in New York, Cairo, London, and Athens took to the streets in pursuit of emancipation, obscure destructive fantasies inspired the world’s racist populists in places as far apart as Hungary and Arizona, achieving a horrific consummation in the actions of mass murderer Anders Breivik. The subterranean work of dissatisfaction continues.

Rage is building, and a new wave of revolts and disturbances will follow. Why? Because the events of 2011 augur a new political reality. These are limited, distorted—sometimes even perverted—fragments of a utopian future lying dormant in the present.

Exclusive final chapter from Žižek’s new book, The years of dreaming dangerously 

So where do we stand now, in 2012/ 2011 was the year of dreaming dangerously, of the revival of radical emancipatory politics all around the world. Now, a year later, every day brings new proofs of how fragile and inconsistent the awakening was, with all of its many facets displaying the same signs of exhaustion: the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring is mired in compromises and religious fundamentalism; the OWS is losing momentum to such an extent that, in a nice case of the “cunning of reason,” the police cleansing of Zuchotti Park and other sites of the OWS protests cannot but appear as a blessing in disguise, covering up the immanent loss of momentum. And the same story goes on all around the world: the Maoists in Nepal seem outmaneuvered by the reactionary royalist forces; Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” experiment more and more regressing into a caudillo-run populism… What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have the one between nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of the sublime enthusiastic moments, and the cynically-realist explanation of why the attempts to really change the situation had to fail?

The first thing to state is that the subterranean work of dissatisfaction is going on: rage is accumulating and a new wave of revolts will follow. The weird and unnatural relative calm of the Spring of 2012 is more and more perforated by the growing subterranean tensions announcing new explosions; what makes the situation so ominous is the all-pervasive sense of blockage: there no clear way out, the ruling elite is clearly losing its ability to rule. What makes the situation even more disturbing is the obvious fact that democracy doesn’t work: after elections in Greece and in Spain, the same frustrations remain. How should we read the signs of this rage? In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes the French historian André Monglond: “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.” Events like the OWS protests, the Arab Spring, demonstrations in Greece and Spain, etc., have to be read as such signs from the future. In other words, we should turn around the usual historicist perspective of understanding an event out of its context and genesis. Radical emancipatory outburst cannot be understood in this way: instead of analyzing them as a part of the continuum of past/present, we should bring in the perspective of the future, i.e., we should analyze them as limited, distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future which lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential. According to Deleuze, in Proust, “people and things occupy a place in time which is incommensurable with the one that they have in space”: the notorious madeleine is here in place, but this is not its true time. In a similar way, one should learn the art to recognize, from an engaged subjective position, elements which are here, in our space, but whose time is the emancipated future, the future of the Communist Idea.

However, while one should learn to watch for such signs from the future, we should also be aware that what we are doing now will only become readable once the future will be here, so we should not put too much hopes into the desperate search for the “germs of Communism” in today’s society. One should thus strive for a delicate balance between reading signs from the (hypothetic Communist) future and maintaining the radical openness of the future: openness alone ends up in decisionist nihilism which constrains us to leaps into the void, while full reliance on the signs from the future can succumb to determinist planning (we know what the future should look like and, from a position of meta-language, somehow exempted from history, we just have to enact it). However, the balance one should strive for has nothing to do with some kind of wise “middle road” avoiding both extremes (“we know in a general sense the shape of the future we are moving towards, but we should simultaneously remain open to unpredictable contingencies”). Signs from the future are not constitutive but regulative in the Kantian sense; their status is subjectively mediated, i.e., they are not discernible from any neutral “objective” study of history, but only from an engaged position—following them remains an existential wager in Pascal’s sense. We are dealing here with the circular structure best exemplified by a science-fiction story set a couple of hundred years ahead of our time when time travel was already possible, about an art critic who gets so fascinated by the works of a New York painter from our era that he travels back in time to meet him; he discovers that the painter is a worthless drunk who even steals from him the time machine and escapes to the future; alone in today’s world, the art critic paints all the paintings that fascinated him in the future and made him travel into the past. In a homologous way, the Communist signs from the future are signs from a possible future which will become actual only if we follow these signs—in other words, they are signs which paradoxically precede that of which they are signs. Recall the Pascalean topic of deus absconditus, of a “hidden god” discernible only to those who search for him, who are engaged in the path of this search:

“God has willed to redeem men and to open salvation to those who seek it. But men render themselves so unworthy of it that it is right that God should refuse to some, because of their obduracy, what He grants others from a compassion which is not due to them. If He had willed to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, He could have done so by revealing Himself so manifestly to them that they could not have doubted of the truth of His essence; as it will appear at the last day, with such thunders and such a convulsion of nature that the dead will rise again, and the blindest will see Him. It is not in this manner that He has willed to appear in His advent of mercy, because, as so many make themselves unworthy of His mercy, He has willed to leave them in the loss of the good which they do not want. It was not, then, right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him. He has willed to make himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”

God gives these signs in the guise of miracles, and this is why the same mixture of light and obscurity characterizes miracles: miracles are not visible as such to everyone, but only to believers—skeptical non-believers (to whom Pascal refers as “libertins,” in a typical 17th century way, as opposed to the 18th century predominant meaning of debauchery) can easily dismiss them as natural phenomena, and those who believe in them as victims of superstition. Pascal thus openly admits a kind of hermeneutic circle in the guise of the mutual interdependence of miracles and “doctrine” (the church teaching): “Rule: we must judge of doctrine by miracles; we must judge of miracles by doctrine. All this is true, but contains no contradiction.” Perhaps, one can apply here Kant’s formula of the relationship between reason and (sensuous) intuition: doctrine without miracles is sterile and impotent, miracles without doctrine are blind and meaningless. Their mutual independence is thus not symmetrical: “Miracles are for doctrine, and not doctrine for miracles.” In Badiou’s terms, miracle is Pascal’s name for an Event, an intrusion of the impossible-Real into our ordinary reality which momentarily suspends its causal nexus; however, it is only an engaged subjective position, a subject who “desires to see,” which can truly identify a miracle.

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