DES­PER­ATELY OP­TI­MISTIC

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PHILOSOPHY - RÓISÍN IN­GLE

to the left, and it did strengthen. It al­most split the Demo­cratic Party [and helped] not only Bernie San­ders but Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez. It cre­ated, for the first time in I don’t know how many decades, a true Amer­i­can left. So I still think the great merit – I’m sorry for this ob­scene term to be used with some­body like Trump – is Trump mixed the cards in a new way.”

Who would he vote for this time, Joe Bi­den or Trump?

“Bi­den is long-term the same catas­tro­phe as Trump,” he replies. While wel­com­ing “the chaos” of the cur­rent in­cum­bent, “I think Trump is a lit­tle too much.” On the other hand, the Demo­cratic con­tender “is some­times, you can see, painfully se­nile”. With­out giv­ing a straight an­swer, he says he hopes Bi­den “has this tal­ent Ron­ald Rea­gan had. I was told . . . Rea­gan had a good Lenin­ist tal­ent to nom­i­nate the right peo­ple to po­si­tions. I hope [Bi­den] will build a bet­ter équipe around him, which will some­how con­trol the sit­u­a­tion”.

As a com­mit­ted Hegelian, or more ac­cu­rately Hegelo-La­ca­nian – his other lodestar is French psy­cho­an­a­lyst Jacques La­can – Žižek is con­stantly hold­ing at least two op­pos­ing ideas in his head at once. At one junc­ture, he de­scribes the Hegelian out­look as “des­per­ately op­ti­mistic” but he also says, “I don’t know a much more pes­simist philoso­pher than Hegel.”

To the ex­tent that Žižek ac­counts for this par­tic­u­lar con­tra­dic­tion, it is in the fact that no one is sure what Hegel ac­tu­ally be­lieved; he was, af­ter all, a philoso­pher de­scribed by Arthur Schopen­hauer as “a flat-headed, in­sipid, nau­se­at­ing, il­lit­er­ate char­la­tan, who reached the pin­na­cle of au­dac­ity in scrib­bling to­gether and dish­ing up the cra­zi­est mys­ti­fy­ing non­sense”.

Žižek is Hegel in­car­nate in one sense at least: He has an enor­mous cat­a­logue of work, pro­duc­ing a book roughly ev­ery six months. So fre­quently, in fact, that he loses track of the ti­tle that he is cur­rently pro­mot­ing. “Which book are you talk­ing about?” he asks about five min­utes into our Skype call. “Ah, it’s al­ready that one!”

The book in ques­tion is Hegel in a Wired Brain, a med­i­ta­tion on what the Ger­man philoso­pher – born 250 years ago on Au­gust 27th – would make of tech­no­log­i­cal progress. Žižek doesn’t use so­cial me­dia and says he has never had a Twit­ter ac­count; the “per­son­alised” aes­thetic doesn’t ap­peal to him.

“I have this old philo­soph­i­cal dis­tain, when some­body says ‘I per­son­ally feel like that’. My im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion is: ‘F**k off. I don’t care how you feel.’ I’m in­ter­ested in truth. Truth not in the naive sense of ob­jec­tive truth but truth in the sense of what is the pre­sup­po­si­tion of what you’re say­ing.”

He cred­its An­gela Na­gle, the Ir­ish au­thor of Kill All Normies, for in­flu­enc­ing his view of on­line com­mu­ni­ties. A “weird re­ver­sal” has oc­curred, says Žižek, where“the new right al­most ap­pro­pri­ated all the vul­gar­ity” once as­so­ci­ated with stu­dent re­formists, “and much of the new left is go­ing into this po­lit­i­cally cor­rect di­rec­tion”.

“This is my prob­lem with the ten­dency to get rid of all re­main­ders of racism, sex­ism and so on . . .”

While Žižek is “for this strug­gle”, he asks whether “ru­in­ing mon­u­ments” is the best tac­tic. René Descartes, for ex­am­ple, “is the quin­tes­sence of the western mind, pure ra­tio­nal­ism, priv­i­leged man, no sense of empathy, and so on – but wait a minute! Do you know how pop­u­lar Descartes was among women read­ers? Why? Be­cause cog­ito – the pure Carte­sian ‘I’ – has no sex; it’s open to con­tin­gent sex­ual constructi­on . . . With­out cog­ito there is no mod­ern fem­i­nism.”

What­ever about the qual­ity of his logic, Žižek is charm­ing com­pany.

“I have a per­sonal ques­tion,” he in­ter­jects. “Don’t laugh at me. I ask ev­ery Ir­ish per­son: de Valera ver­sus Michael Collins?” Later, he cites the Dublin-based nov­el­ist Tana French – “a big hit in Slove­nia” – as ev­i­dence of Ire­land’s great­ness. “Ev­ery stupid, small na­tion can have a great poet, a great na­tional nov­el­ist. To have a good de­tec­tive writer means you are in.”

Given the out­break of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, Ljubl­jana’s most fa­mous son is al­ready think­ing of the next book. It will be “some­thing like Hegel in the Vi­ral World”, he says, hav­ing al­ready brought out a short tract called Pan­demic! in April.

The restart­ing of tourists’ flights across Europe is “ab­so­lutely crazy”, he be­lieves. At the same time, “I sym­pa­thise with the guy who says ‘I don’t want to wear a mask’. I un­der­stand him. We are be­ing asked lit­er­ally to change our na­ture.”

As for the ef­fect of Covid-19 on the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, Žižek says: “What I like – ‘like’, it’s an ob­scene term to use here – for what goes on now is that even con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ters and pres­i­dents have to do things which, if you had to men­tion them a year ago, they would tell you: ‘Are you crazy? This is rad­i­cal left; it will never be done.’”

Don’t ex­pect any neat con­clu­sions from Žižek. But even his fiercest crit­ics must ad­mit that, like a stopped clock which tells the right time twice a day, he in­evitably hits upon some truth – even if it’s the sim­ple truth that hu­mans are hope­lessly flawed and con­tra­dic­tory.

With a nod to his own short­com­ings, he sug­gests the ridicu­lous­ness of our species is what makes us spe­cial, as it’s some­thing no su­per­in­tel­li­gent computer can match.

“This ex­am­ple I use all the time – I’m em­bar­rassed it’s in at least five of my books,” he says, be­fore retelling a joke from the 1939 Ernst Lu­bitsch com­edy Ninotchka: “You go to a restau­rant and ask: ‘Can I get cof­fee with­out cream?’ The waiter says: ‘Sorry sir, we don’t have cream, we only have milk, so you only can get cof­fee with­out milk.’

“This is a prop­erly Hegelian point,” Žižek adds. Both types of cof­fee, along with “plain cof­fee” are “ma­te­ri­ally the same but they are not sym­bol­i­cally, in our space of mean­ing, the same”.

“I de­bated this with computer spe­cial­ists and asked them a sim­ple ques­tion: ‘Could an ar­ti­fi­cial mind dis­tin­guish be­tween plain cof­fee, cof­fee with­out cream and cof­fee with­out milk?’ And I didn’t get a good an­swer.”

‘‘

Do you know how pop­u­lar Descartes was among women read­ers? Why? Be­cause cog­ito – the pure Carte­sian ‘I’ – has no sex; it’s open to con­tin­gent sex­ual constructi­on . . . With­out cog­ito there is no mod­ern fem­i­nism

Hegel in a Wired Brain by Slavoj Zizek is pub­lished by Blooms­bury Aca­demic.

Don’t send “con­grat­u­la­tions on your new book” flow­ers to Kathleen MacMa­hon. Also, don’t pick up the lunch or cof­fee bill at a meet­ing. Well, not if you are her pub­lisher any­way. “The way women are treated in this busi­ness is some­thing I find re­ally in­ter­est­ing . . . and pa­tro­n­is­ing,” she says.

This pref­er­ence not to be a pam­pered au­thor emerges over cof­fee and melt-inthe-mouth scones made by Lucy, one of McMa­hon’s 18-year-old twin daugh­ters. We’re in the gar­den of her gor­geous Dublin home near the Grand Canal. There’s a friendly dog called Bon­nie run­ning around and a sewing ma­chine in­side the house where colour­ful piles of face cov­er­ings are crafted.

Her hus­band Mark, who works in IT, is out. Their other daugh­ter, Clara, ar­rives home, san­guine about her can­celled Leav­ing Cert. With do­mes­tic­ity swirling around us, MacMa­hon, an­i­mated, sharp and en­ter­tain­ing, is talk­ing about what she has learned from her pro­fes­sional writ­ing ca­reer so far. A jour­ney that be­gan back in 2011 with a much-pub­li­cised six-fig­ure ad­vance from Sphere at the Lon­don Book Fair for her first book, the best­selling, heart-wrench­ing love story This Is How It Ends.

“I think women writ­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, are treated like mis­tresses. You know, you get sent flow­ers the day your book is pub­lished. Peo­ple pay for your lunch and your cof­fee. So I always in­sist now on pay­ing for my cof­fee.”

Her new book is called Noth­ing But Blue Sky. It’s an el­e­gantly writ­ten and mov­ing ac­count of one man com­ing to terms with the sud­den death of his wife in a plane crash. It’s about grief and loss and re­flec­tions on a 20-year mar­riage. Her pub­lisher is new too; Pen­guin Sandy­cove was un­til re­cently known as Pen­guin Ire­land.

Warm­ing to her point about free lunches and pa­tro­n­is­ing flow­ers, MacMa­hon says she does not like that writ­ers are treated “like show ponies . . . I’m not com­fort­able with that. I’d pre­fer to be an equal pro­fes­sional at the ta­ble. Ev­ery­body is do­ing a dif­fer­ent job. You do your job and I’ll do mine. I sound harsh but I think it ac­tu­ally makes me bet­ter to work with . . . I am not try­ing to make friends with any­body.”

When I ask her to tell me about the chal­lenges of work­ing with Sphere – she has writ­ten in this news­pa­per about the trauma of the Dif­fi­cult Sec­ond Novel – she is diplo­matic but truth­ful.

“I don’t want to go down the road of crit­i­cis­ing them be­cause they gave me a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity, but I think that there was a mar­ket in mind for what I was do­ing and that’s a prob­lem be­cause it’s not a prod­uct as far as I’m con­cerned . . . it is a prod­uct at the end but not when you are writ­ing it.”

The prob­lem be­gan when the con­tract for her lu­cra­tive two-book pub­lish­ing deal ar­rived in the post. Sev­eral pub­lish­ers had been in­ter­ested in This Is How It Ends but Sphere took it off the ta­ble for ¤684,000, a deal bro­kered by MacMa­hon’s agent, Mar­i­anne Gunn O’Con­nor.

The writer was sent a con­tract for “two works of women’s com­mer­cial fic­tion”. “I was like, wow, is that what I’m writ­ing? I was so naive . . . I found it of­fen­sive.”

She is quick to point out she has no is­sue with com­mer­cial fic­tion or books aimed at women, but she felt sud­denly pi­geon­holed.

“I just find it ex­tra­or­di­nary that some­body de­cided that’s what I was. Like, here is a fledg­ling writer, start­ing a new ca­reer, writ­ing about life and love and what­ever I find in­ter­est­ing, and it’s in a box al­ready. I don’t think that would have hap­pened to a male writer.”

She felt con­strained – by a dead­line that was, she felt, un­re­al­is­tic, and by the pres­sure to pro­vide a cer­tain kind of book.

“You are so free when you write the first book, free of your own fears and peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions, you write it in a se­cret happy place. A big pub­lish­ing deal is amaz­ing, of course, but I did find my­self in a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion. I think that book a year thing is bonkers. It’s like ask­ing some­body to pro­duce a baby in three months. I had a prob­lem with that from the start but there was no budge.

“I was freaked by it,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen . . . I nearly had a ner­vous break­down. The sec­ond book had to be scratched af­ter 20 rewrites, dur­ing which time I worked like a lu­natic. It was

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BORUT PETERLIN

Slavoj Zizek: ‘I have this old philo­soph­i­cal dis­tain, when some­body says ‘I per­son­ally feel like that’. My im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion is: ‘F**k-off. I don’t care how you feel.’

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