Slavoj Zizek, who has been called the world’s hippest philosopher by the telegraph, recently gave a public lecture at the LSE entitled Living in the end of times, following the title of his recent book . I would really recommend having a look for yourself, one can view a video of the lecture here. He uses the current economic crisis as a starting point to question the way contemporary discussion about the economic and political system are framed. In his, one must admit, quite unstructured and improvised presentation, he raised many interesting points and touched upon a number of different topics and authors. For reasons of space and parsimony, I only discuss a selection of the points I found particularly interesting.
With respect to the crisis, to illustrate his point about the potential for creation in the current situation, he refers to Mao’s famous “there is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent”. Academics among others fail to fully use this crisis to implement change which goes beyond tinkering with certain legal or fiscal parameters.
Academics have a responsibility that stems from their activity. Too often, he contends, this imperative is overtaken by the will to seem modest and underestimate your own knowledge as a “professional intellectual”. He recalls an anecdote by a fellow academic friend who, being temporarily in Oxford, stopped at a factory to give a talk to workers:
Left leaning Friend of his trying to be fraternal and friendly: “I am not here as the one who knows everything, you will learn from me the same way I will learn from you”;
Worker: “Fuck off! Of course you should know, you are paid to know, don’t patronise us.”
This failure of intellectuals, policy makers and the system at large to think outside the box finds its echo in a paradoxal trend. He points out that we live in a world where more and more is possible, especially in science and technical progress; in these domains nothing is impossible. But at the same time and running parrallel to this phenomenon, social questions are increasingly constrained to a smaller set of feasible alternatives. Again, he sums up his point quite nicely: you can send a person to the moon, but if you want a bit more welfare state, that’s impossible.
In his view, this rising sense of a narrowing set of available policy options is partly a result of the type of reasoning which we mobilise. He draws on Kant’s notion of public versus private use of reason to further elaborate this argument. When public officials call upon ‘experts’ to solve a predefined problem, then private use of reason is exercised. This is increasingly pushed forward as a type of reasoning where academics are asked to solved technical issues such as how to solve the current crisis or fix the BP oil spill.
Public use of reasons, on the other hand, involves taking a critical and broader perspective and asking:
Is the problem really a problem and is the issue identified really the source of the problem? Why is there a problem? This then raises questions concerning the structure in which the problem is framed and embedded, and allows for more alternative solutions to be considered.
He concluded: if the 20th century was a century of radical action, maybe we as radicals tried to do things too fast and we should set ourselves a more modest goal; that of radical thinking.