I continue my desert studies at William Vollmann University, but I took some time away from the VU campus to read a couple of short books, each of which deals with one’s relation to the Other (though in very different ways), which is also Vollmann’s great theme. Last week, I finished reading my first Slavoj Zizek book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, having avoided Zizek up to now because he seemed both too prolific and too trendy. Right after finishing the Zizek, I read Susan Sontag’s long essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. In approaching Sontag over the years, I have often found myself repelled by the coldness of her style & her tendency to argue by assertion. Despite my doubts, both these short books accomplished for me what theory / criticism ought to do — that is, both essays helped me sharpen my own thinking and sense of the world.

The first half of First as Tragedy, Then as Farce presents a flyover of post-9/11 politics & culture in the West — it is what I think would have been called a work of political economy before that term went out of fashion with the rise of economics as a science. Zizek is a fluent, even sprightly, writer who can explain difficult concepts clearly and whose point of view can thus come to feel completely natural to the reader, who, if I am at all typical, adopts the author’s assumptions as if they were his own. This is a very effective rhetoric, if that’s what it is — style as rhetoric — but the reader must be on guard so as to not be swept away on a current of enthusiasm, which, admittedly, can be a pleasant experience, especially with a maestro as charismatic as Zizek.

Two big concepts emerge from Zizek’s essay, which is conveniently divided into two parts: 1. An analysis of the ways in which neo-liberalism & late capitalism effectively subvert & incorporate insurgent political movements. Zizek is particularly interested in the way that movements on the political left suffer this fate, but it would be interesting to see how he’d think about the so-called Tea Party movements on the American right, which will almost certainly be absorbed by the neo-liberal Republican Party. The genius of neo-liberalism is its ability to absorb insurgencies & naturalize them, making them safe for domestic consumption, as it were. 2. A thesis about Human Nature in which the capital letters are appropriate. Zizek sets himself up as a champion of “communism” as a mode of life that depends on the assumption that there is a core set of human values that unites all people across any supposed cultural divides. In this, he directly opposes the position of Theory in all its manifestations over the last thirty years, which has held that human nature is a variable construct. In my view, Zizek’s second thesis consists of a great deal of wishful thinking, but perhaps that is because I have been ensnared by theory. In any case, I have a student who, along with a bunch of Dickens and Tolstoy, has just read The Fountainhead this summer: I have recommended Zizek’s book as an antidote.

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others came along at just the right moment for me. I have been reading William Vollmann’s big book Imperial, about the California county where my mother was born & where I spent a lot of time growing up & looking, too, at the separate volume Vollmann published, under the same title, of his photographs of people and places in Imperial County. Sontag’s book is an attempt to understand the usefulness of images — photographic images in particular. In this late essay, Sontag revises and even reverses her earlier (more aesthetic?) view of photography as a technology of distancing & comes to an understanding of the photograph – particularly the war photograph — as a necessary, if never sufficient, moral document. The second half of this book strikes me as the epitome of what an intellectual discourse looks like: full of passion & doubt.

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