Review – ‘Pandemic: Covid-19 Shakes the World’, by Slavoj Žižek.

Nietzsche used a word, unzeitgemäße, that has a meaning of ‘unmodern’, or ‘out-of-date’, or, closer to Nietzsche’s usage, being so full of its own sense of temporal situated-ness that it embodied something of that exact moment in time, but nothing after. Compare that to something like Fredric Jameson’s work and his take on ‘Postmodern’, which was always condemned to hang in a historical position of either ‘too late’ or ‘too soon’ (not to mention Jameson’s interventions after 9/11). Between the two lies Žižek’s latest, Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World, a hastily-produced collection of essays about the unprecedented crisis of 2020.

Žižek has a prolific output: he seems to average at least one substantial book per year, sometimes two or more. So when OR Books announced the publication of Pandemic! on 24 March (just one day after Johnson’s government had enforced lockdown in the UK), it seemed impressive, but not entirely surprising. It was also announced that the author had waived all royalties in order for them to be donated to Médecins Sans Frontières – for that reason, it seems slightly unfair to critique the text, so I’ll stick to lightly reviewing it.

After the lockdown of much of the world as we know it, the global financial system is reeling; some experts have predicted as much as a 35% shrinkage of the economy over the year. Many journalists have suggested that now is the time to theorise about radical overhauls, or to move beyond the short-sightedness that Mark Fisher labelled ‘Capitalist Realism’. Indeed, the multiple failings of capitalism are laid bare all too plainly during this crisis (one thinks of the US, where 2 million chickens were slaughtered and left to rot at the same time that hundreds of thousands queued for drive-thru food banks; media pundits claimed there ‘was no-one in stores to buy the chickens’, so concluded that there was no-one to eat them).

For those familiar with Žižek’s work, this book presents a rather gentle walk through key aspects of the 2020 global crisis, with a few takes that have a long history in his writing. For instance, his stance towards the Chinese Government is ambivalent throughout, as he struggles to reconcile their heavy-handed treatment of dissent along with their continuing espousal of the basic tenets of communism. Žižek interestingly theorises different sorts of tiredness, and contrasts the tiredness achieved through hard, exhausting work on, say, a hospital ward, with the kind of inert tiredness from those who have the luxury of isolating and working from home.

That said, there is evidence that shows just how quickly this book was put together. Žižek is really very light on the theory side of things, and his usually extensive quotations here includes at least two large blocks taken directly from Wikipedia. Proofreading and editing errors abound also (one thinks of the line from British musicologist Arnold Whittall: ‘A reader may still learn something from a bad book, but a badly edited book is an insult to the reader’s mind as well as to his wallet’). The lightening-fast pace at which the book was written is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that on 15 April (that is, after the book was released) Žižek released an ‘extra’ chapter to be grouped with the collection.

All of the above is not to say that I dislike the book; far from it, in fact. Žižek is the first theorist to publish a book on the crisis, and there is something exhilarating that comes from reading an up-to-date book on contemporary events. Whenever the book falls out of relevance – which will surely happen sooner rather than later – it remains to be seen whether it will retain its appeal. The most convincing discussion comes when the author applies a slightly clumsy framework of mourning to contemporary society in general – claiming that we are soon reaching stage 5 (acceptance), when we as a planet will have no choice but to realise that only radical reinvention will save us. Just what that will be remains to be seen.

Richard Strauss compared his need to compose to that of a cow needing to give milk. Presumably, Žižek’s urge to write cutting-edge criticism with a soft theory lens must be similar.

You can order Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World by Slavoj Žižek from OR books here

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