Sunday, September 13, 2009

Say The Right Thing

From an excerpt from First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Zizek, published in the new issue of Harper's Magazine:

"The pressure to 'do something' [referring to the $700 billion bank bailout] is like the superstitious compulsion to make some gesture when we are observing a process over which we have no real influence. Are not our acts often such gestures? The old saying "Don't just talk, do something!" is one of the stupidest things one can say, even measured by the low standards of common sense. Perhaps the problem lately has been that we have been doing too much, such as intervening in nature, destroying the environment, and so forth. Perhaps it is time to step back, think, and say the right thing. True, we often talk about something instead of doing it; but sometimes we also do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them. Such as throwing $700 billion at a problem instead of reflecting on how it arose in the first place."

Besides being generally delighted by the Slovenian philosopher's sneering, imperious tone--how often is one told "one of the stupidest things one could say"?--I thought it notable that Zikek's piece coincides, almost to the day, with an article in the New York Times headlined, "A Year After a Cataclysm, Little Change on Wall St."

The thesis of Zizek's article, or book excerpt, seems to be that it is impossible to take an honest ideological stance one way or the other concerning the bailout. In the current model of capitalism (Zizek argues in every model), if the banks suffer, everybody suffers; therefore how could one in clear conscience oppose such a measure? But, Zizek writes, "the relationship is nontransitive: while what is good for Wall Street is not necessarily good for Main Street, Main Street cannot thrive if Wall Street is feeling sickly, and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street."

Zizek ultimately describes the relationship between banks and government as "blackmail." If you think this is hyperbole, I suggest you read the more objective, less theoretical piece in the Times.

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