TheGreatUnstainer’s #CBR5 Review #03 ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ by Slavoj Zizek

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I have no idea who would read this book.  I just don’t.  This is the sort of book that sits on a bookshelf, conspicuously at eye-level in a living room.  As a totem, it is a visible demonstration of the owner’s intellect and keen insights into the world.  The possessor of the book does not have to be able to quote from it or even understand it for this totemic magic to work.

With Zizek pumping out several books a year, you could enhance its magic with a few of his other works.  ‘Oh!’ your guests would say, ‘You have more than one of Zizek’s books!  How clever you must be!’

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is an extremely difficult book.  Difficult and turgid, but rewarding.  Published in 2009, Zizek explores the philosophy and social constructs which provided the background of both the cause of the Global Financial Crisis and the response to the Global Financial Crisis.

Zizek’s project is to act as the philosophical optometrist to the world.  We, the ordinary folk of the world, cannot see what is really going on because we have the wrong pair of glasses.  Worse, we the ordinary folk of the world have been self-prescribing our glasses using WebMD and have strong emotional attachments to the glasses that we have prescribed for ourselves.  As philosophical optometrist, Zizek not only wants to prescribe a new pair of glasses but also wants to convince us that we should put aside our emotional attachment to our current glasses.

This is where the difficulty comes in.  When discussing the background philosophical issues — for example, the analysis of how capitalist ideology has become invisible to most people — he is subtle, nuanced, even beautiful in his expression.  More than that, he is persuasive and (as a conservative myself) confronting.

But when it comes to fields of expertise beyond philosophy — particularly economics — Zizek becomes increasingly less subtle and nuanced.  It should go without saying that the causes of and responses to the GFC have an economic element to them, but it is difficult to find that economic element expressed satisfactorily in the book.  Although both Michael Moore and the Tea Party make functionally the same claim (‘bailing out the banks is robbery!’), it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are both equally correct.  Or even that they are saying the same thing, as strange as it sounds.  One is saying: ‘[Giving money to the people who caused the problem] is [morally impermissible because they should be punished for what they did to everybody else].’  The other is saying: ‘[Giving money to people whose business model failed] is [morally impermissible because taxation is theft and propping up businesses distorts the market].’  The focus on the US contributes to this myopic view.  Here in Australia, while fending off dropbears and hating on the Lebanese, we invested taxpayer dollars into various areas of the economy in order to ride out the GFC.  By most reasonable accounts, it worked well.  If you can extrapolate Zizek’s reading of the US experience to Australia, the coherency of his discussion breaks down.  In other words, his analysis of their social engagement only seems plausible because the actions failed.  Had the actions not failed (as was the case in Australia), the analysis would not look plausible.

Philosophy gets an unfair wrap in public opinion due to films like The Matrix or whatever which make philosophical questions look easy.  Where philosophy is absolutely at its best is when it is informed by the very best in other fields of research.  First as Tragedy, Then as Farce desperately needs more input from economists (and not just of the ‘I have a popular column in a newspaper’ variety).

The act of reading therefore becomes an act of sifting.  You have to filter out all the gobbledegook about economics in order to focus back on the questions Zizek answers best: where are our blindspots when it comes to arguing about politics and economics?

Then again, Zizek does absolutely everything he can to push the reader away.  Jokes that are seriously NSFW litter the book.  And the jokes don’t really serve much in the way of a purpose.  A joke about a peasant’s wife getting raped doesn’t contribute much to the argument.

Towards the end of Zizek!Zizek complains that the ‘enemy’ tries to marginalise his views by laughing at them.  ‘Ho, ho. That funny Zizek.  He’s not a serious commentator on politics or culture!’

Here he is, for example, complaining about tulips:

But it’s not the ‘enemy’ making him look foolish there.  It wasn’t the ‘enemy’ which littered First as Tragedy, Then as Farce with awkward jokes.  It was Zizek himself.

And thus we get back to the start.  I have no idea who would read this book.  Is Zizek simply writing book after book to his fans?  Are they dutifully purchasing each one, making room for it at eye-level in their living rooms?  Do fans of Zizek even have money?  Worse, Zizek doesn’t seem to have a particular audience in mind.

Which is a shame because three-fifths of the book (the non-economics stuff) is genuinely great.

So, if you’re a masochist with an interest in the philosophy of politics and economics, grab a copy of this book and read it in a really busy cafe so that lots of people can see you.

Three stars.

 

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TheGreatUnstainer #CBR5 Review #02 The Adventures of Dr McNinja Vol 2: Timefist

 Two years ago, I bought my younger brother a box set of Gumby DVDs.  When we were kids, we would watch it with that gawpish look in our faces.  It would mesmerise us, hold us transfixed and enthralled.  For half an hour each day, it was the best thing ever.

Watching the set again as an adult, the magic had faded.  The sunset clause in the contract the creators had with the Devil had come into effect long ago, and now we could all see Gumby for the preachy, screechy, painful mess that it is.

It was the first sign of a coming wave of realisation: so many things I love have an expiry date.  The giddy joy of watching only lasts once.  Now that I know Bruce Willis is dead, The Sixth Sense is mostly unwatchable.  Now that I know that Marion Cotillard is playing Talia al Ghul, there isn’t much point left in The Dark Knight Rises.  Now that I know Snape kills Dumblesnore, there’s even less reason to read Harry Potter and the Something of That Thing. 

So when the Internet’s best webcomic is released in trade paperback (TPB) form by Dark Horse there is a hesitation tinged with morbid curiousity: will the adventure be as thrilling the second time around?

Dr McNinja is a frequently-regularly produced webcomic by Chris Hastings about a doctor who is from a family of Irish-American ninjas.  Despite being called ‘volume 2’, it’s more accurately a third volume.  The first volume was the original series of black and white comics, but it wasn’t published by Dark Horse.  Instead, it will be published in June 2013 by Dark Horse as part of an omnibus edition.  The first volume published by Dark Horse, Dr McNinja: Night Powers, collected all the stories beginning with the first colour episode, ‘Monster Mart’.

If you coped with that baffling paragraph, you will be fine with Timefist, which is something of an unrelenting tidal wave of confusing narrative and surrealist parody.  Why does that boy have a giant moustache?  Why is Benjamin Franklin a university lecturer in the ’90s?  Aztec tennis players?  Dinosau….?

Selling a person on the merits of Dr McNinja is not difficult.  It is clever, witty, and fun.  Given the webcomic format, each page is punchy and beautifully crafted.  Indeed, it’s so easy to sell the concept of Dr McNinja to people that it’s something of a gateway drug to the genre of surrealist parody comedy.  It’s a short bounce from here to, say, The Venture Bros. or Danger 5.

The difficulty is selling a person on the merits of buying the TPB when it’s available for free online.  Even more difficult when they have already read the series, laughed at the twists and turns, and are now faced with what I am now calling The Gumby Problem: will it be as much fun the second time around?

Format changes the way we read things.  When you wait a few days between pages, you expect each page to be a complete package in its own right.  Books of greater length can afford to have a bit of flab.  Pages where, for example, the protagonist does nothing but sulk in a forest, having a bit of a sook, and thinking fruitlessly about horcruxes.

What is surprising — and it’s more noticeable in Timefist than in Night Powers — is that this discipline translates particularly well to the TPB format.  The pacing is quick, the key parts of the story are highlighted on each page, and nothing feels lost.  In surrealist parody, it is easy for the story to get out of control.  Dr McNinja has a plethora of supporting characters, and the temptation to let things go off leash must drive Hastings wild.  Despite that, things are kept under expert control.

But it’s not all beer and skittles.  In TPB, the weaknesses of the series are a little bit harder to ignore.  Hastings really loves Chekhov’s Gun.  Really loves it.  When the same technique is repeated a few times in a row, it starts to get in the way of enjoying the story because the reader is expecting the weirdly emphasised detail to make a return in the resolution.  The TPB format also distorts the tone: ‘relentless’ is a double-edged adjective.  After smashing through a dozen pages, I felt the desperate need for a break.

All of that said, it is still extremely fun the second time through and it comes highly recommended for people who are already fans of the webcomic.

4/5.

TheGreatUnstainer’s #CBR5 Review #01: Books v Cigarettes by George Orwell

Of all the early 20th Century writers, George Orwell continues to be an intriguing character.  Despite being a socialist, his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, caused him to become the darling of the modern libertarian, of the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, and of the perpetual adolescent of the Internet.

But this popular caricature of Orwell as the friend to the neo-con is difficult to reconcile with the Orwell who emerges from his essays.  Books v Cigarettes — a collection of seven essays published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series — presents some of Orwells musings on society, particularly his relationship with the intelligentsia.  The collection paints a picture of an Orwell who is at once both a self-conscious outsider — almost desperate to be acknowledged as a contrary, free, and independent thinker — and a painfully self-conscious product of middle class England.

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