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


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.